Mohamed Anwar Sadat laughs on the other end of the phone at the mere mention of Egypt’s upcoming elections.

“The election is over, it’s all about the turnout,” says the former parliamentarian, who is the nephew and namesake of late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated while in office in 1981.

Sadat had sought to challenge the country’s incumbent leader, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in the presidential elections scheduled for March 26-28, but withdrew his candidacy in January suddenly, citing repression and intimidation against his campaign staff and supporters by the state.  

Sadat was one of several would-be candidates who appear to have been forced out of the race, owing to harassment or arrests by the ruling regime, in an effort to clear the field of credible opponents ahead of an election that critics are calling a farce.

Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq dropped his challenge after he was detained incommunicado at a Cairo hotel. Human rights lawyer Khaled Ali also cited intimidation behind his decision to pull out. Former general Sami Anan was arrested soon after declaring his intention to run, and Ahmed Konswa, a colonel in the Egyptian armed forces, was sentenced to six years in prison after announcing his campaign in a video statement in December, for allegedly breaching rules regarding military officers expressing political opinions.

As a result, Sisi is only facing one challenger in next week’s election, Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the centrist pro-government Ghad Party, who only registered his candidacy minutes before the deadline on January 29. Mousa is widely regarded as a dummy candidate to add a veneer of legitimacy and competition to the elections.

Screenshots of a Facebook account reportedly belonging to Mousa, published in local press on the day he registered, had a photo showing support for Sisi. Earlier this month, speaking on a state-owned television programme, Mousa explained he didn’t seek to debate Sisi because he’s “not here to challenge the president.”

It’s not just would-be challengers who have faced harassment. Just over a week ago the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, criticised what he called the “pervasive climate of intimidation” in the country and the “silencing” of independent media ahead of the elections.

In a strongly worded statement in response, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry rejected Hussein’s accusations, calling them unsubstantiated.

Censorship in Egypt has intensified of late, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which said that four Egyptian journalists had been detained since Sisi announced his re-election bid in January.

The state has also set foreign media much more firmly in its sights after a critical BBC report on enforced disappearances in Egypt aired last month. Shortly after, Egypt’s top prosecutor, Nabil Sadeq, issued a statement ordering state prosecutors to monitor media reports for fake news and to take action against those outlets.  

Citizens have been enlisted in this endeavour too. Egyptian authorities published a list of telephone numbers last week so that ordinary Egyptians can alert them to such reports by WhatsApp or text message.

Even the regime’s supporters aren’t safe it appears. A pro-government talk show host was detained for two days earlier this month, accused of insulting the police after a segment on their salaries. He is currently on bail.

“There is a high level of paranoia,” says Mohamed Zaree, a member of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. The paranoia is driven, he adds, by the internal divisions the elections exposed, “that part of [Sisi’s] regime is not supporting him, people like Sami Anan or Ahmed Shafiq who are part of the state, part of the regime, part of the state apparatus”.

If this is indeed what is driving Sisi’s paranoia, then it’s unwarranted as he is “very popular” within the state system and its institutions, says Professor H. A. Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute.

With the elections seemingly a foregone conclusion, many are instead looking to its aftermath and how Sisi will consolidate his position in his second term. “The real query is about how quickly the next administration will try to change the constitution in order to ensure that Sisi can run for another term, thereby solidifying even further power in the presidency and this particular regime,” says Hellyer.

Some regime critics are even trying to be positive. “We all hope that in the post-election era we might see a new approach, we might see more chances for dialogue, room for opposition,” says Sadat before adding, “This is what we all hope, but no one can predict what will happen.”

Peter Fray

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