Victory seems certain for him, although Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not yet officially announced whether he wants to run in the next presidential elections, which are now scheduled to take place from December 10th to 12th, according to the electoral authority. For several weeks now, huge posters calling for people to vote for al-Sisi have appeared in Cairo and other cities. Sometimes his wise leadership is praised, sometimes the stability of the country. Around 40 parties have asked al-Sisi to run, and the president is happy to be asked.
Ultimately, the election in December will be less about whether al-Sisi wins the election, but rather what the turnout will be. In authoritarian Egypt, it is the last remaining indicator that can say something about how great the support actually is for al-Sisi. In the 2018 election he is said to have received 97 percent of the vote, but turnout was only 41 percent. At that time, almost all of the opposing candidates who were even somewhat well-known were intimidated or not allowed to take part in the vote.
This time, seven candidates have already announced that they will run in the election, including former MP Ahmed Tantawi. According to the Egyptian civil rights organization Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), around 35 of his supporters have been arrested, at least briefly. The list of approved candidates should be published by November 9th, after which election campaigns can take place until November 29th. This is a short period of time; the election date was originally expected to take place in February.
In recent months, Al-Sisi has repeatedly appealed to the patience and strength of his compatriots. He staged a coup against democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, a coup that was welcomed by many Egyptians who found the Islamist government chaotic and incompetent. Muslim Brotherhood protests were bloodily suppressed. In the years that followed, tens of thousands of people ended up in prison for political reasons. To this day, many opponents of the regime, as well as representatives of civil society such as journalists, are imprisoned in Egypt, sometimes without trial.
However, the poor economic situation may have persuaded the government to bring forward the vote. Youth unemployment is around forty percent, inflation is almost as high, and dissatisfaction increases with every month. President al-Sisi can control the public with his security apparatus, but not the prices. Up to half of Egyptians are said to already live below the poverty line. The Egyptian pound has lost about half of its value in recent years, and many foods and wheat have to be imported at high prices.
So far, neighbors from the Gulf states have helped out with generous financial injections in such crises. But these times seem to have changed. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates apparently no longer want to invest in a bottomless pit, but also want to see return values. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is also making a new aid package dependent on the sale of state-owned companies. This primarily refers to the participation of the army, which operates hotels, produces pasta and is currently expanding a large network of motorway, named “Chill Out”. Most recently, al-Sisi tried to allow something like a political discussion again within a manageable framework, in a “national dialogue” with selected groups. Well-known opposition figures such as Ahmed Duma, who has been imprisoned since 2013, were pardoned and a total of around a thousand political prisoners were released. But Egyptian human rights activists complain that 3,000 more people were detained for political reasons during the same period.
Opposition members from the democratic camp are repeatedly arrested and family members – including those living abroad – are put under pressure. Citizens who are not actually politically active, such as journalists, have also been increasingly arrested in recent months. The foreign opposition is intimidated by such cases, for example when relatives in Egypt are imprisoned on flimsy grounds. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch speaks of “chess pieces” in a campaign to silence critics abroad. Egyptians living in the West report that there has been an “increase in harassment when entering the country” recently. They would be questioned about political activities or contacts with the opposition. Very non-political people are often affected.
It seems that there is some nervousness in the Egyptian regime at the moment. Al-Sisi is under increasing pressure as Egypt’s economic and financial crisis deepens with each passing month. Several social programs are intended to cushion the enormous rise in prices – inflation is now almost 40 percent – and the supply problems. In order for the International Monetary Fund to pay out the next tranche of a three billion dollar loan and for Egypt’s credit rating not to be downgraded, al-Sisi will probably not be able to avoid drastic measures such as further currency devaluation – which would cause prices to rise further.
There are also constantly new arrests and convictions that appear to be politically motivated. In August it happened to a well-known publicist. Last month he was sentenced to six months in prison for defamation and insulting a police officer, until after the presidential election. The journalist had helped found a new collective movement of the liberal opposition, the “Free Current”. In response to his conviction, it announced that it would boycott the presidential election.
The EU is also slowly starting to worry about Egypt’s future. The governments of the member states are increasingly committed to helping those arrested. This is intended to make it clear to the Egyptian regime that continued detention is damaging its image and relations with the EU. However, politicians and diplomats generally proceed more cautiously. Some fear that an overly confrontational stance could lead to a hardening of the position on the Egyptian side.
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