Gearing up for re-election

Earlier this week, Egypt's National Election Authority announced that the country will go to the polls on 26–28 March to elect its president. Although Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has not yet announced that he will run, his re-election seems like a foregone conclusion. And while a number of other serious candidates intended to stand, it looks as if the field is thinning. By Bachir Amroune

By Bachir Amroune

Egypt's leadership will do everything it can to ensure Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is re-elected. The country's state-run media is poised to begin its blanket coverage of the president. Now that the official election date is announced, the media will commence its daily reporting on the president's inauguration of factories across the country and victories won in the bitter so-called "fight against terrorism". This coverage has been set out in a plan issued by the president's press office.

The fact that the state of emergency was extended by another two months on 2 January is most welcome in this context: media censorship will persist, organisations can be banned and citizens can be spied on and restricted in their movements.

Though he hasn't yet officially announced his candidacy, Sisi's re-election as Egypt's president should be almost guaranteed. One could well expect him to achieve a result similar to his overwhelming victory four years ago, when he captured 97 per cent of the vote.

Against the backdrop of his country's catastrophic economic and security situation, however, such a straightforward re-election might not be on the cards. The Egyptian pound has plummeted in value, state energy and staple food subsidies have been drastically cut, the country's middle class is struggling with ballooning costs and a third of Egyptians live below the official poverty line.

Egypt's so-called "fight against terrorism" offers a similarly bleak picture: massive terror attacks with up to 300 causalities, the targeting of churches in the country's capital, Cairo, and the uprising of Bedouin peoples on the Sinai peninsula, which could escalate into civil war.

It hasn't helped that Egypt's leadership has sought to pacify this strategically important region solely through military means and the use of police force, which has inadvertently harmed the local civilian population and exacerbated the situation.

Khaled Ali celebrates his legal victory over President Sisi in a Cairo courtroom (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Renowned human rights lawyer and presidential hopeful Khaled Ali celebrates a major victory in a Cairo courtroom in 2017. Dealing a blow to President Sisi, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, which had been agreed by Sisi and King Salman, was unconstitutional. The plan had sparked anger from political opponents and activists, who accused the government of selling off territory in exchange for Saudi money

Although Egypt's opposition hoped to field several serious challengers to Sisi, it is not yet clear who will end up in the running in late March.

Lawyer Khalid Ali is a serious competitor. He made headlines last January for successfully taking legal action against Sisi's controversial deal with Saudi Arabia over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Sovereignty over the islands, which are strategically located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, was transferred from Egypt to the gulf monarchy. Ali's surprising legal victory against the powerful Egyptian ruler could indicate that he enjoys the backing of influential Egyptian figures – especially as the country's judiciary isn't exactly renowned for its independence.Serious challengers in doubt

However, a court conviction in September for making an obscene hand gesture when he won a legal case resulted in him receiving a three-month suspended jail sentence. Ali, 45, is appealing the sentence, but if it is upheld he will be barred by law from running.

Before announcing on Sunday that he would not in fact run for president, Ahmed Shafiq was considered another and even more serious political threat to Sisi. The former civil aviation minister was appointed prime minister by then-President Hosni Mubarak to ensure calm on the streets when the 2011 uprising began. In 2012, Shafiq lost to the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate Mohammed Morsi in a presidential run-off, garnering 48 per cent of the vote. Shafiq is said to have close ties to rich oligarchs connected to Mubarak's sons, Ala and Gamal, who are trying to regain their old power vis-a-vis Sisi.

Sisi does not want to face such a serious challenger in the presidential election. When Shafiq, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates, announced his candidacy, he was taken by allies of Sisi and put on a private jet to Egypt, his lawyer claims. Back in Egypt, Shafiq declared he would reconsider running for president. Then came the unequivocal decision on Sunday. Speaking via Twitter, he said: "After assessing the situation in Egypt following my return from the United Arab Emirates, I see I will not be the ideal person to lead the affairs of the state in the coming period. So, I decided not to run in the upcoming elections of 2018."

Ahmed Shafiq (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Ahmed Shafiq, the former Egyptian prime minister seen as the major potential opposition in the 2018 election, will not run for president. Shafiq was seen as the major potential challenger to President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in the election. In his Twitter statement announcing his decision, he wrote: "My absence of more than five years perhaps distanced me from being able to very closely follow what is going on in our nation in terms of developments and achievements despite the difficulty of the conditions."

European pals

Sisi's European allies could well give him the edge over his domestic challengers. In late October, he visited French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris and struck an arms deal worth some €6 billion, agreeing to buy French fighter jets and surveillance software.

In 2017 alone, Berlin sold arms worth roughly half a billion euros to Egypt – a record amount. In August, Germany and Egypt also signed a deal to stem the flow of migrants into Europe. The relationship between both governments is evidently good. So good in fact that German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told Egyptian interlocutors they had "an impressive president" during a visit to Cairo in April 2016.

Human rights organisations paint an entirely different picture, however. Since coming to power in a bloody coup in July 2013, Sisi is said to have locked up some 60,000 individuals for political reasons. And in the last two years alone, 100 prisoners are said to have been put to death, while 1,700 individuals have disappeared.

Bachir Amroune

© Deutsche Welle/ 2018