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Theresa May criticised for congratulating Egypt's Sisi on re-election

British prime minister said she hoped the Egyptian president would strengthen ties between the countries following election
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May talks with members of staff as she visits workers in Scotland (AFP)

Theresa May has been criticised for congratulating Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on his re-election as the president of Egypt despite the arrest of opposition figures and repeated accusations of human rights abuses in Egypt.

A statement released by Downing Street on Wednesday said the British prime minister had "congratulated" Sisi on his "chance to take Egypt further along the path of democratic transition" and praised his "public commitment to respecting Egyptian presidential term-limits".

"The prime minister said she looked forward to working closely with President Sisi during his final term in office and that the UK wanted Egypt to succeed as a stable, prosperous and democratic country," said the statement.

"The pair discussed how the two countries can continue to work together to further Egypt’s economic and education reforms and support its counter-terrorism efforts. President Sisi noted the UK’s experience and expertise in these areas and the potential benefits to Egypt. They looked forward to developing the bilateral relationship in all fields."

Theresa May should be condemning these egregious rights violations, not giving legitimacy to flawed elections conducted in this highly repressive environment

- David Mepham, Human Rights Watch

Sisi won 97 percent of the vote in last week's presidential election, where he ran against only one candidate who had previously been one of his supporters. All other candidates were either arrested or pulled out of the running after pressure.

According to al-Ahram newspaper, two million voters spoiled their ballot papers, inserting the names of candidates who were not among the only two approved. Opposition groups branded the vote a farce and called for a boycott.

Five potential opponents were blocked from getting on the ballot and no public debates were held.

Moussa Mostafa Moussa, himself a relatively unknown supporter of the president, registered just before the closing date for applications, preventing a one-horse race.

David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, said May should not be lending "legitimacy" to Sisi's government.

“Sisi presides over a human rights crisis in Egypt, with thousands detained and tortured under his leadership, and an unprecedented crackdown on media freedom and political dissent," he told Middle East Eye.

"Theresa May should be condemning these egregious rights violations, not giving legitimacy to flawed elections conducted in this highly repressive environment."

Endemic torture

In a push by authorities for a higher turnout last week, voters were given 50 to 100 Egyptian pounds ($3 to $5), boxes of food and amusement park tickets to encourage them to vote.

Following the election, US President Donald Trump expressed his "sincere congratulations" to Sisi in a call, according to the state news agency. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, also congratulated Sisi on his re-election on Monday, while France's foreign ministry offered "wishes for the full success of President Sisi for his second mandate".

Human Rights Watch has warned that torture is "endemic" in Sisi's Egypt, which he took control of after a 2013 coup against Mohamed Morsi, followed by thousands of arrests and shootings of political dissidents.

A report released in September said that political detainees faced "beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and sometimes rape" in Egyptian jails.

Egyptian authorities have arrested or charged probably at least 60,000 people since the coup, while hundreds have been handed death sentences. Civilians have faced trials in military courts.

Despite this, the Egypt and the UK enjoy close diplomatic and trade relations, with the UK having licensed $172m worth of arms to Egypt since 2013.

In response to a parliamentary question on 21 March, the UK government said that 56 Egyptian military officers had also been trained in the UK since the coup.