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Egypt: Ahmed Tantawy sentenced to jail for challenging Sisi, says rights group

Human Rights Watch denounces sentencing of opposition activist and his presidential campaign aides as a ruling 'aimed at deterring dissent'
Ahmed Tantawy attends a press conference at the headquarters of the Conservative Party in Cairo on 13 October 2023
Ahmed Tantawy attends a press conference at the headquarters of the Conservative Party in Cairo on 13 October 2023 (Reuters)

An Egyptian court has sentenced prominent opposition leader Ahmed Tantawy to one year in prison and barred him from running for national elections for five years over allegations of unauthorised presidential campaign endorsements.

Tantawy, a left-wing politician who had been perceived as the only real challenger to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the December presidential elections, withdrew from the race in October citing intimidation and crackdown on his supporters and family members.

He also accused the authorities of blocking his supporters from filing endorsements to support his nomination.

On Tuesday, a Cairo court for minor offences handed the verdict to Tantawy and his election campaign manager over charges of “printing and disseminating unauthorised endorsement forms”, his lawyer Nabel el-Ganadi said. 

El-Ganadi decried the sentence as "unfair", and stated on Facebook that the defence team was “denied the right to acquire a copy of the case file”.

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He added that their list of demands has been ignored “ever since the very first session was held”.

Along with Tantawy, Mohammed Abu el-Diyar, his election campaign manager, was also handed the same sentence. 

'By barring Tantawy from running, the authorities are sending a clear message that no serious challenge to Sisi will be tolerated'

- Amr Magdi, Human Rights Watch

Both men were ordered to pay a bail of 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($650) for the sentence to be suspended and appealed before a higher court. 

According to Reuters, citing security and judiciary sources, 21 members of Tantawy’s campaign were also handed a one-year sentence with labour.

Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that the ruling by the Cairo court was based “entirely on Tantawy’s peaceful political activism”.

“Human Rights Watch documented the months-long series of unlawful arrests, intimidation, and prosecutions against potential candidates and their supporters which preceded the election, all of which effectively prevented any meaningful competition,” the organisation said in a statement.

Amr Magdi, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, criticised the court’s decision, saying it sets a dangerous precedent.

“It isn't just that the authorities are punishing peaceful dissent. By barring Tantawy from running in future elections, the authorities are sending a clear message that no serious challenge to Sisi will be tolerated,” he said.

Crackdown on supporters

Tantawy has previously accused the government of blocking his supporters from registering endorsements, and holds the president responsible. 

According to the National Elections Authority's regulations, in order to be accepted as a presidential candidate, the candidate must be endorsed by at least 20 members of the House of Representatives or be supported by no fewer than 25,000 citizens across 15 governorates who have the right to vote, with a minimum of 1,000 from each governorate.

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“Every day, our supporters queue in front of registry offices, from morning till night, and go home without being able to file their nominations,” Tantawy told a gathering of supporters in Damietta in October. 

Meanwhile, evidence shows that the Sisi campaign has been forcing people, including millions of civil servants and recipients of government benefits, to endorse Sisi for president, according to testimonies received by Middle East Eye.

Tantawy, a 44-year-old former MP, has faced continuous harassment since his decision to return from self-imposed exile in Lebanon in May to run for president.

His family members, campaign volunteers and lawyers have been detained in a campaign denounced by rights groups as politically motivated. Additionally, his mobile phone was hacked multiple times between May and September, which the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab attributed to the Egyptian government. 

Tantawy, formerly the chair of the Nasserist al-Karama party (Arabic for Dignity), has been known for vocal criticism of the Sisi government in recent years, especially during his tenure as a member of the House of Representatives from 2015 to 2019.

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