Egypt’s election: a plebiscite with a new puppet
Giovanna Vittori 23 March 2018

There is no doubt that seven years after the Egyptian revolution, elections are over and the plebiscite is back. Even though Egyptians (at least those who believe that going to the polls still has any meaning) will find two names on their ballot papers, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is the only candidate. His last minute rival, Moussa Moustafa Moussa, is just the other puppet needed for this farce. Before actually racing to present his candidacy, Moussa carefully made cosmetic changes to his Facebook account, deleting one by one all posts written for months supporting Al-Sisi. Relaxed in his “campaign”, Moussa organized just one rally in Cairo to ensure the support of the Union of Arab Tribes, a political player unknown to those familiar with Egyptian politics. However, Moussa succeeded in achieving what other people (all male) had not; Al-Sisi’s potential opponents have in fact been kicked out of the race.

Since December, the same authorities that banned the Muslim Brotherhood, have eliminated all credible challengers to the incumbent president, a general who came to power with a military coup in 2013. Two ex-military commanders — Lt. Gen. Sami Anan and Col. Ahmed Konsowa — were arrested and jailed for violating military law by intending to run for office. Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister and Air Force chief, withdrew from the race after being reportedly placed under house arrest. Sadat, nephew of the Egyptian president assassinated in 1981, pulled out of the race after facing numerous obstacles, including being unable to find hotels willing to host his campaign events and attacks from government-backed media. In withdrawing from the race, Sadat and another challenger, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, cited government repression and safety concerns for their supporters. “It is all controlled democracy,” Sadat said. “This is not the democracy we were all hoping for or expecting.” Authorities also targeted Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Islamist who – after leaving the Muslim Brotherhood – became the leader of the Strong Egypt Party. Even he was unwilling to run and was arrested after criticizing Al-Sisi and urging an election boycott on an Al-Jazeera programme.

The United Nations was the first international player to denounce what it called a “pervasive climate of intimidation” ahead of the upcoming presidential elections. In an annual report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Al-Hussein said that potential candidates had allegedly been pressured to withdraw. According to the report published in early March, Egypt has stepped up its crackdown on media outlets it deems to be providing information that might affect national security. Egypt’s reaction to such allegations was instant denial. Cairo’s foreign minister called Hussein’s comments “false allegations” claiming that the report was based on “fake news.”

Such a verbal attack is in line with the long war against all national and international media, branded as “forces of evil”. This concept – already used by Al-Sisi in January to refer to political opponents who had called for a boycott of the presidential election – has become one of the most recurrent in the ongoing “electoral” campaign. On February 28th, Egypt’s public prosecutor Nabel Sadek accused media outlets of “spreading false news that disturbs public order and terrorizes society.” As a result, he has instructed his staff to monitor news and social media outlets and take legal action against those deemed to be undermining the country’s security. Nothing very original if one bears in mind that in early February, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments started training sessions for imams and preachers on fighting foreign conspiracies and dealing with information warfare.

The most recent call on prosecutors to punish government critics – a move that appeared directed at the foreign media – occurred against the backdrop of a government dispute with the BBC over “the shadow of evil”, a report produced by the British broadcaster emphasising cases allegedly involving torture and forced disappearances in Egypt, condemned by the government as “lies and false allegations.”

After ordering the detention of the Egyptian woman who had spoken to the BBC, a legal complaint was filed against the BBC’s reporter, Orla Guerin. At the same time, Egypt’s State Information Service, the government agency that accredits foreign journalists, threatened the BBC with a boycott should it fails to offer a formal apology and withdraw the controversial report.

This was not the first time the foreign media had been caught in the crosshairs of the Egyptian authorities. In April 2016, a report published by Reuters provoked the government’s anger, leading to an investigation of Reuter’s Cairo Bureau Chief Michael Georgy by police and prosecutors. The Reuters report, criticized as fake by the government, claimed that Giulio Regeni had been detained by the police on the night he vanished. According to the Reuters’ correspondent, allegations were based on the testimonies of anonymous security sources who had requested their identities be kept secret due to the sensitivity of the issue. Eight months later, Sisi passed a law according to which the president chooses members of the so-called Supreme Council of the Press, a body that has the power to fine or suspend publications and broadcasters as well as approve or revoke foreign media accreditations.

The situation is even worse for the domestic media. According to a December 2017 report by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, there are 20 journalists languishing in Egyptian prisons accused of various charges, with many accused of spreading fake news or of collaborating with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. In the meantime over 500 websites have been blocked by the state, among them Mada Masr, the last surviving independent news website.

Perversely, even the state media is at risk. Krairy Ramadan, a prominent journalist and media presenter, known for being a staunch supporter of Al-Sisi, was recently detained after reporting on a message received from a police colonel’s wife in which there were complaints concerning salaries paid to officers. Ramadan was released on bail, but his arrest was seen as a sign that state authorities had embarked on a zero-tolerance policy, which would also include those loyal in the media.

One cannot therefore envisage that this attitude towards the media will change. In fact, in a televised speech on March 2nd, Al-Sisi announced that any insult aimed at the army or the police coming from a media outlet would be considered defamation of the country and therefore treason, rather than freedom of expression. Once again, the media will be unable to play the part of a watchdog during the coming elections, which will be neither fair, free nor transparent. “That is why we cannot speak about the elections,” an Egyptian academic who asked to remain anonymous recently told Reset. “Turnout will be the only interesting data worth waiting for,” he said. “But it is more likely that the media will provide cosmetic data. But be careful! There will be journalists reporting a high turnout despite deserted polling stations.”

Credit: Khaled Desouki /AFP