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Al-Sisi's political rivals face prison, or worse

June 11, 2024 at 9:34 am

Egyptian presidential hopeful Ahmed al-Tantawi looks on during an interview at his office in central Cairo on 12 October, 2023 [AHMED HASAN/AFP via Getty Images]

The systematic policy used by the Egyptian regime against those who try to deviate from the will of the current president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, is simple: anyone who steps out of line is punished. It works. Al-Sisi is in his third term of office, extended to 2030.

The latest victim is former Egyptian parliamentarian and journalist Ahmed Al-Tantawi. He was sent to prison recently in connection with his attempt to run against Al-Sisi in the presidential election late last year.

Over the course of three presidential elections in Egypt since the military coup in July 2013, potential rivals to the former minister of defence have been arrested and thrown behind bars. It has been described as political engineering for the benefit of a certain someone.

Al-Tantawi, 44, is now serving a one-year prison sentence with hard labour for alleged irregularities in the public endorsements for his candidacy. Also sentenced were his election campaign manager, lawyer Muhammad Abu Al-Diyar, and 21 supporters and members of his team.

Matareya Court of Misdemeanour Appeals upheld the sentence against Al-Tantawi and others on 27 May. He is also banned from standing in any parliamentary election for five years. It is likely that the former head of the Al-Karama Party will end up serving his time in prison, despite filing an appeal. He has already been transferred to the 10th of Ramadan Prison. His appeal may not go through due to the crowded litigation schedule before the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest court.

The National Elections Authority in Egypt requires candidates to obtain 25,000 official endorsements from 15 governorates, or to be recommended by 20 members of parliament, to run for president. Al-Tantawi called on his supporters to fill out unofficial endorsement forms online, to show how many supporters he has around the country, because his efforts to obtain the necessary endorsements for his candidacy against Al-Sisi were being obstructed.

For months, the Tantawi campaign had complained about this, and that members and supporters of the campaign were arrested, while others were intimidated. In the end, the would-be candidate only managed to collect 14,000 endorsements, forcing him to withdraw from the presidential election. He accused the authorities of preventing his supporters from completing enough endorsement forms. That was sufficient, apparently, to prosecute him.

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Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases of illegal detention, intimidation and prosecutions against potential candidates and their supporters before the election. The Egyptian authorities have arrested and tried dozens of members of the Tantawi family, as well as alleged or actual supporters, since March last year, when he announced that he intended to run for president.

Al-Tantawi is one of many victims over more than 10 years, during which time the Egyptian president has harassed his opponents from all political factions. He has even jailed senior army officers after they expressed their intention to run against him.

It has been made clear that Al-Sisi will not tolerate any credible political opponent at the ballot box.

The former Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army, Lieutenant General Sami Anan, is probably his most prominent victim in this respect. He was arrested on charges of violating the law and forging official documents, when he announced his intention to run for the presidency in January 2018.

The Army General Command said at the time that Anan announced his candidacy without first obtaining the approval of the armed forces or taking the necessary measures to end his service in the army, with which he was still affiliated. The statement added that he forged official documents to end his service, and that this led to him being included wrongfully in the voter database. He was duly arrested and detained for just under two years, before being released in late 2019.

Members of Anan’s campaign team were also imprisoned. They included his two deputies, the former head of the Central Auditing Organisation, Hisham Genena — who was sentenced to five years in prison and was released in February 2023 — and Anan’s campaign spokesman, the late political science professor, Hazem Hosni, who was released in February 2021 after serving a year and a half of pretrial detention.

Colonel Ahmed Qanswa is serving a six-year prison sentence for publishing a video clip in which he discussed some political opinions, in violation of military orders. He wore his army uniform and announced that he intended to run for the presidential election, just as Al-Sisi had done on state television in 2014.

The same fate befell the 2012 presidential candidate, the head of the Strong Egypt Party, Dr Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has been in solitary confinement since February 2018. He had returned to Egypt from London following an interview with Al Jazeera Mubasher in which he criticised Al-Sisi’s rule. This was before Al-Sisi was re-elected in March 2018.

The authorities charged Aboul Fotouh, 73, with five counts of a political nature, including leading a terrorist group, financing terrorist groups, possessing weapons and ammunition, promoting the ideas of a terrorist group, and intentionally broadcasting false news, statements and rumours at home and abroad.

The former Egyptian Prime Minister, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shafiq, faced a different fate, as he was deported from the UAE after announcing his intention to run against Al-Sisi in 2018. He was then placed under house arrest upon his arrival back in Cairo and has been forced out of the political scene ever since.

Before the 2014 election, the first that Al-Sisi won, the only democratically-elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi ousted by Al-Sisi’s coup, was in prison; he died in custody in June 2019. The businessman and deputy guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat Al-Shater, and another presidential candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, have both been in prison since 2013.

His opponents say that Al-Sisi will not tolerate any rival who might pose a threat to his political future, and that he prefers to choose his “rivals”. This gives Egyptian elections the appearance of being democratic and so silences critical voices abroad.

According to former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi writing on X, Tantawi’s trial confirms that the security mentality dominates the political mind, and presidential elections are a charade with no guarantees (other than who is going to win), no spirit and no actual popular participation.

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Political researcher Mohamed Abdel Aziz said that political “desertification” is being imposed in Egypt by the use of the judiciary and the law to pursue opponents, especially those who pose a credible threat to Al-Sisi’s position. This is what happened to Anan, Qanswa and Aboul Fotouh, and was repeated with Al-Tantawi, taking advantage of the Egyptian people’s preoccupation with developments in Gaza, the electricity outage crisis and increases in the price of bread.

Others believe that the imprisonment of Al-Tantawi was a punitive measure by the authorities due to his activities on the Egyptian street, and the positive momentum he created, which embarrassed the regime. The authorities took advantage of the decline in international and human rights pressures, and the fact that the European Union, which had previously criticised the Egyptian regime, raised the level of bilateral relations between the two sides to that of a strategic partnership in March.

“Punishing Tantawi and his supporters for challenging Al-Sisi once again reveals the authorities’ absence of any tolerance for peaceful activism,” said Adam Coogle, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, under the headline, “No Tolerance for President Al-Sisi’s Rivals”.

The Berlin-based Foundation for Law and Democracy Support pointed out that, “This unjust ruling against Al-Tantawi, just for using his constitutional right, reaffirms that any attempt to compete with the current president in the [presidential] election will be met with brutal retaliation from the Egyptian authorities.”

The National Elections Authority announced last year that Al-Sisi received 39,702,451 votes, 89.6 per cent of the total valid votes cast. Hazem Omar came second with 1,986,352 votes, 4.5 per cent; Farid Zahran came third, with 1,776,952 votes, four per cent. In fourth place was Abdul Sanad Yamama, with 822,606 votes, 1.9 per cent of the valid votes.

Al-Sisi met with his rivals last December and stressed his appreciation for their political performance during the electoral process. He ignored the more genuine candidates who were thrown behind bars, some of whom continue to face solitary confinement, illness and death.

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