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Egypt votes: Four more years of state repression

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is set for an easy victory after crushing political opposition in his first term

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed in Egypt earlier this month as part of a wider Middle East tour. When asked by an American journalist about Egypt's dubious presidential elections and human rights record, Tillerson responded diplomatically.

The grim reality in Egypt, however, cannot be masked by even the most eloquent of diplomatic responses. In his first term, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi committed atrocities against political opponents, and he is now clearing the way for a second term, knocking out anyone who could have potentially run against him. The election, due to take place at the end of March, has become one big farce.

Challengers crushed

In the latest crackdown, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, the head of the Strong Egypt Party and former presidential candidate, was not just arrested, but added to Egypt's terrorism list. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with Egyptian politics knows that Abul Fotouh being charged with terrorism is bizarre. He led a reformist liberal current within the Muslim Brotherhood and was later expelled from the group in 2011.  

Not only does Abul Fotouh routinely condemn violence and the use of force against the state, regardless of its brutality, he also promotes institutional reform rather than revolutionary measures, as seen in his latest interview before he was detained.  

Since the 2013 coup that removed Morsi from power, Egypt’s political life has become constricted, and the enthusiasm for political change ushered in by the Arab Spring has been replaced by an atmosphere of fear

In addition to Abul Fotouh, Hisham Genena, who held the highest anti-corruption position within Egypt's judiciary, was detained two weeks ago. Genena was sacked from his job in 2016 after saying that the government lost 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($68bn) to corruption.

Earlier this month, the ex-state bureaucrat was severely injured when he was attacked by a group of men with knives and sticks, leaving him with a broken knee, a swollen eye and bloodied body.

Genena’s misfortune is due to his work on Sami Anan's presidential campaign. Anan, the former army chief of staff who was widely respected within the military, was also arrested within three days of announcing his campaign. Anan, who in his candidacy announcement made veiled criticisms of Sisi's poor management of the country's resources, would have been a strong challenger.

In addition, Ahmed Shafiq, the final prime minister under Hosni Mubarak and the runner-up in the 2012 presidential elections that Mohamed Morsi won by a small margin, was punished for announcing his intention to challenge Sisi. After being deported from the UAE to Egypt, he backed away from his plans to run.

Notorious legislation

Sisi’s first four-year term was full of atrocities and the curbing of freedoms, making the farcical context surrounding the current vote rather unsurprising.

Since the 2013 coup that removed Morsi from power, Egypt's political life has become constricted, and the enthusiasm for political change ushered in by the Arab Spring has been replaced by an atmosphere of fear. The regime essentially legislated authoritarianism through what became known as the anti-protest law.

Egyptian special forces stand guard in front of the National Election Authority in Cairo on January 29, 2018 (AFP)

Another notorious law amended the criminal code to allow for pretrial detentions of up to two years. In one infamous case, Egyptian-American Aya Hegazy spent more than 35 months in Egyptian prison over false accusations, well over the two-year limit. Obviously, the hundreds - if not thousands - of people held in prison under this law were not as fortunate as Aya, who had the US pressing for her release.

Perhaps the final blow to civil society in Egypt was when the new NGO law was ratified last year, essentially putting all NGOs under the direct control and surveillance of the security apparatus.

Last year, Human Rights Watch issued a report that spoke of police and national security officers routinely torturing political prisoners, which has "helped define the authoritarianism of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's administration". This is in addition to detainees dying from torture in custody and widespread forced disappearances. Commenting on the report, Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director of HRW, said: "Impunity for the systematic use of torture has left citizens with no hope for justice."

A bleak future

Sisi's presidency was built on the platform that he supposedly saved the country from the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Persecution targeted not only the Brotherhood but all of those who rejected the military intervention of July 2013. As time passed, political freedom declined, and space disappeared for any genuine opposition.

Sisi famously scolded and humiliated a member of parliament when he called on the president to cap electricity and energy prices, at least until a minimum wages was put in place.

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Sisi's term was full of other controversies, such as the forfeiture of the two Egyptian islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, and the failure of negotiations with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam, which will affect Egypt's share of the Nile. These, among other issues, have prompted contenders from the deep state - such as Shafiq and Anan - to step up, before being immediately sidelined. 

Given the last four years and the current context of the presidential elections, it appears highly unlikely that Egypt's political and human rights situations will improve. In the meantime, Sisi will get his second and, in principle, final presidential term.

It is pretty much impossible for him to step down, given the enemies he has created along the way. What this will mean for the future will only be told within the coming four years. 

- Mustafa Salama is a political analyst, consultant and freelance writer, with extensive experience and an academic background in Middle East affairs.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: An election campaign banner erected by supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seen in the capital Cairo on February 21, 2018 (AFP)