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Al-Sisi is using the war in Gaza as an excuse for more repression

November 22, 2023 at 11:45 am

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Ittihadia presidential Palace in Cairo on November 15, 2023 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi quite possibly sees the ongoing Israeli war against the Palestinians in Gaza as a blessing in disguise, because it has provided cover for his ongoing political and security repression in his own country before the presidential election next month. He hopes to stay in power for a third term until 2030.

Developments in Gaza dominate the interests of Egyptians, amid a decline in discussions about violations of the electoral process, the absence of integrity guarantees and the deterioration of economic conditions. In return, there is a condescending media tone about the need to be cautious about the repercussions of the war on Sinai, maintain stability and stand behind a candidate who has a military background — Al-Sisi himself, of course — to protect Egypt’s national security.

The momentum around the Israeli escalation in Gaza has given the green light for Al-Sisi to accelerate his punitive measures against prominent opponents, including presidential candidate Ahmed Al-Tantawi, who is scheduled to be in court today. The former parliamentarian, his election campaign manager and 21 members of his campaign team are being tried on charges of circulating documents related to the election without proper permits from the authorities, in Case No. 16336 of 2023, known in the media as the “Popular Endorsements Case”. They face between three and ten years in prison if found guilty.

The former head of the Karama Party had called on his supporters to fill out manual forms after they complained about being prevented from entering notarisation offices to endorse him. This stopped him from collecting the 25,000 endorsements from 15 of the country’s 27 governorates needed to stand for president.

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In another dangerous step, Al-Sisi has ratified the sentencing to 15 years in prison of the former presidential candidate and head of the Strong Egypt Party, Abdel Moneim Abu Al-Futouh, and others, by the Emergency Supreme State Security Criminal Court. This sentence is now final and irrevocable, which contravenes internationally-recognised standards of justice.

Abu Al-Futouh has been behind bars since February 2018 on charges of spreading false news, joining a terrorist group and inciting against state institutions. He was detained immediately after a televised interview with Al Jazeera Mubasher, during which he criticised Al-Sisi.

Earlier this month, an Egyptian court referred two detainees in the Hazemoun Cell case to the Grand Mufti for a legal opinion on their execution. The detainees are held on charges of a political nature, including joining a group established contrary to the provisions of the law, the purpose of which is to call for the suspension of the provisions of the Constitution and the law, to prevent state institutions from carrying out their work, to attack the personal freedom of citizens, and to harm national unity and social peace.

Moreover, a political prisoner has died in mysterious circumstances in Burj Al-Arab Prison in Alexandria Governorate, according to the independent Shehab Centre for Human Rights. This brings the number of such deaths in Egyptian prisons since the beginning of this year to 32.

In addition to executions and unexplained deaths behind prison walls, the forced disappearance of dozens of Egyptians continues, while others are imprisoned for taking part in pro-Palestinian demonstrations without security permits.

Human rights lawyer Hoda Abdel Moneim has also been detained after serving her five-year prison term following her arrest in November 2018. The detention of journalist Tawfiq Ghanem, 68, has been renewed despite it having exceeded the period of pretrial detention set by Egyptian law for a maximum of two years.

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State repression was extended to the independent Mada Masr website, which got blocked for six months on the pretext of practising media activities without a licence. It was blocked after it published a report stating that there is a tendency within political decision-making circles in Egypt to allow Palestinians to move to Sinai, in exchange for economic and financial incentives. The site’s administrators were accused of publishing fake news.

Economically, and in parallel with security and political repression, the Egyptian regime has succeeded in exploiting the Gaza war to impose harsh measures that increase the suffering of the people in Egypt, notably extending the decision to cut electricity for two hours a day, because gas imports from Israel have stopped.

Fuel prices have increased alongside increases in water bills and the prices of some basic necessities such as sugar. There have also been major increases in the prices of iron, cement, building materials, electrical appliances and home furniture. The value of the local currency has deteriorated further, amid anticipation of a new floatation of the Egyptian pound, following the presidential election in the middle of next month.

According to one Egyptian journalist living in exile, Gamal Sultan, guidelines issued to ministers and senior officials in Egypt set out that they are to emphasise in their public statements that the economic crisis, the high cost of living and the weakness of the currency are due to the war in Gaza.

“Al-Sisi’s security services and committees are promoting an emotional populist discourse saying that in these difficult times, when fires are burning around the country, and serious events are taking place, we need the unity of the people, rallying around the leadership, and rising above differences,” said Sultan on Facebook. “Meanwhile, the leadership itself is busy arresting young people and children who participated in the sit-ins supporting Gaza, prosecuting and arresting candidate Ahmed Tantawi’s campaign cadres, and approving the prison sentence of opposition leader Dr Abdel Moneim Abu Al-Futouh!”

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Al-Sisi’s greatest gain from the Gaza war, a political expert who requested anonymity told me, will be winning the election for a third term in office without any disturbances. The international community will turn a blind eye to any rights violations in exchange for relative stability in Egypt given what is happening in Gaza, as well as procrastination in opening the Rafah border crossing. “There are new detainees, and violations in prisons, but no one has heard of them,” he pointed out. The regime is using the war as an excuse to continue random arrests, forced disappearances, torture and harsh economic measures, the most important of which is raising the price of fuel.

Political exploitation of the war is evident by the Egyptian regime’s propaganda through media figures close to the security services. The existential threat in the region makes it a priority to protect the republic, they say, which inevitably means lining up behind Al-Sisi. His media mouthpieces insist that he is facing an external conspiracy.

This transformation was expressed by Egyptian novelist Shadi Lewis on Facebook: “Days before Operation Al-Aqsa flood began, it seemed as if the grip of the security authority in Egypt had begun to loosen. In Matrouh, a party pledging allegiance to President El-Sisi started to chant against him, and in video clips that were circulated widely, we saw his pictures being trampled en masse, but the almost impossible course of events in Gaza was enough to divert attention from the presidential election in Cairo.”

It is likely that the Egyptian regime will reap financial gains and generous aid if understandings are reached with regional and international parties regarding the repercussions of Israel’s war on the Palestinians in Gaza, and the future of the government in the enclave. The misfortune of the Palestinians could benefit the people in Egypt, or at least Al-Sisi and his regime.

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