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Egypt MP's uncles arrested after presidential bid announcement

Arrests come as US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy visits Egypt and meets with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
View of the Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre in Badr City, 65 km east of the Egyptian capital, Cairo (AFP)

Two uncles of Egyptian opposition politician Ahmed Tantawy were arrested and appeared in front of Egypt’s State Security Prosecution on Thursday, activists said, after the lawmaker announced he would run for the presidency.

"Mohamed Naguib al-Tantawy and Mohamed Sayed Ahmed Attiya were arrested on Tuesday evening in Kafr el-Sheikh" in the Nile Delta, human rights activist Hossam Bahgat said.

The pair appeared before the prosecution in Cairo, but the charges against them were not immediately made public.

In March, Ahmed announced he was returning to Egypt on 6 May from Lebanon and planned to run for the presidency to offer a "democratic alternative" to the current administration.

Ahmed, a former left-wing MP and senior member of Al-Karama party, left Egypt last year and has reportedly been based in Beirut after security agencies exercised pressure on him to refrain from criticising the Sisi government.

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President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was re-elected to his position in 2018 after garnering 97 percent of the vote, in a race in which he ran virtually unchallenged after the other serious candidates were arrested or pulled out. His only opponent, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who was one of his supporters, won 2.92 percent of the vote.

As the election date approaches, the director of Egypt's intelligence agency has reportedly been meeting with opposition politicians to discuss the selection of candidates to compete with Sisi, according to Arabi21.

The arrest of Ahmed’s family members comes as Egypt launches a national dialogue meant to involve the country's opposition which has largely been decimated since Sisi rose to power in 2014, following the military’s removal of democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

At the opening session of the national dialogue Wednesday, veteran diplomat Amr Moussa questioned the "control of security policies over the economy", in an apparent reference to the army's chokehold on business sectors.

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Critics have denounced the national dialogue as an effort to deflect criticism from abroad over Egypt's rights record.

The country has been criticised by human rights groups for its treatment of political prisoners, with around 60,000 people reportedly being held in overcrowded cells under brutal conditions.

The crackdown comes as Cairo deals with a worsening economic situation. The Arab world’s most populous nation was hit hard by the dual impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war and the Covid-19 pandemic.

In December, the IMF approved its fourth loan to Egypt in six years. As part of a $3bn deal, Cairo agreed to shift to a flexible exchange rate, reduce the military’s footprint in the economy and open the books of state-owned companies.

Gulf states that have traditionally supported Egypt vowed to invest billions of dollars but appear to be holding back amid scant signs that economic reforms are progressing.

US House leader visits Egypt

The arrests of Ahmed's uncles also coincide with a visit to Egypt by Kevin McCarthy. The Republican lawmaker who leads the US House of Representatives met with Sisi to discuss security challenges, among other issues.

“Today, I met with President al-Sisi in Cairo alongside a bipartisan delegation of Members of Congress. We had productive discussions about how our two nations can continue to work together to ensure peace and stability in the region,” McCarthy said in a statement on Wednesday.

In a statement, the House speaker did not make any mention of the arrests, nor did he mention a recent call from dozens of groups to release Salah Soltan, a legal permanent resident in the US who was forcibly disappeared in June 2020 in Egypt and is currently serving a life sentence at Badr 1 prison, east of Cairo.

His imprisonment followed a mass trial that was marred by extensive due process and fair trial violations.

The groups said Salah appeared to be targeted in retaliation for the actions of his son, Mohamed Soltan, against the Egyptian government.

Mohamed, who spent 643 days in prison in Egypt after being arrested in July 2013, filed a lawsuit against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi in a US court last year.

The US provides Egypt with $1.3bn in military aid annually, the second-highest amount of any country after Israel. President Biden has faced pressure within some quarters of Congress to push back on Egypt’s human rights record.

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