By Ben Lynfield
The puzzling thing is why the regime did not want to put on even a show of a contest, to say nothing of a real competition that could have enhanced Sisi’s legitimacy.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah Sisi’s regime has been making one thing clear about the presidential elections coming up in March: it won’t be a time for democracy.
On Tuesday, authorities arrested the leading challenger to Sisi, former army chief-of-staff Sami Anan, days after he announced on Facebook his bid for top office. The official reason was that Anan had not acquired a permit from the army to run and had allegedly forged his end-of-military-service documents.
In fact, the respected former general’s real transgression may have been constituting a credible voice of criticism to Sisi’s authoritarian rule. In the video announcing his candidacy, Anan spoke of Egypt being in decline as a result of “faulty strategy,” in which the army was overburdened and the state’s civil sectors were hindered.
Anan was the fourth potential candidate against Sisi to be prosecuted or detained, while other candidates chose to withdraw in the face of what they said were threats. A day after Anan’s arrest, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali dropped his bid.
With the exception of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi’s 2012 victory, Egypt has never had a fair presidential election.
The March election, coming four years after Sisi won 97% of the votes in his first run for office, now looks likely to be a referendum. The puzzling thing is why the regime did not want to put on even a show of a contest, to say nothing of a real competition that could have enhanced Sisi’s legitimacy.
It “seems they don’t even care how it looks anymore,” Mohammed Anwar Sadat, nephew of the late president and a candidate who pulled out over concerns for the safety of his staff, told the Daily Telegraph.
Appearances aside, the inescapable conclusion is that the regime believes that it is sufficient to rely on fear to rule. Seven years after the ouster of long-standing dictator Hosni Mubarak, tolerance for dissent is even less than it was under his regime.
The fear factor stems not only from draconian steps the authorities take against opponents, but also from the regime projecting the image that Egypt is under mortal threat from terrorists making it is necessary to rally behind Sisi to survive.
“The mindset of the deep state, the intelligence, the police, the army reflect their premise that Egypt is under existential threat and this is an emergency time; that it is not right to use regular measures, that emergency acts are needed,” says Yoram Meital, an Egypt specialist at Ben-Gurion University. In the view the regime projects, there is no difference between the Moslem Brotherhood and Islamic State insurgents.
“Most of us believed Sisi would win the election and that there is no need for dramatic measures. But the regime wanted to send a message: that this is not the time for democratic struggle, that they expect Egyptians to rally behind Sisi,” Meital said.
Although the state department chastised Anan’s arrest, it came just two days after US Vice President Mike Pence met with Sisi. Pence made no public comments about the egregious human rights situation in Egypt, and it is doubtful he mentioned it in private.
A Western observer in Cairo said that Sisi believes he has a free hand from the Trump administration for abuses against human rights and democracy, and that he also feels a degree of cover from the EU because the Egyptian navy is intercepting refugees and migrants en route to Europe.
The observer noted that parliament recently extended Egypt’s state of emergency.
“Many people really believe a strong leader and state are the only thing between them and chaos.” For the regime, “it is alright to hold an election during the state of emergency because you are supposed to have an election, but they feel it should be clear that we have one leader and that’s Sisi and that’s the way it will be.”
In the view of Ofir Winter, an Egypt specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies, the handling of the presidential race shows Egypt is moving backward.
“They are going back to the authoritarian pattern. There were hopes of more democracy after the Arab Spring. But the elections prove we are very far from this goal and are becoming more distant. The situation in some way is worse than under Mubarak. The fear of every expression that deviates from the main line is much greater today.”