El-Sissi takes hard line ahead of na­tional vote

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY JA­COB WIRTSCHAFTER AND MINA NADER

CAIRO | Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fat­tah el-Sissi’s purge of his lead­ing ri­vals ahead of the coun­try’s elec­tion next month looks like a Mid­dle East­ern au­to­crat’s stan­dard move, but it has watch­ers puz­zled: The for­mer army gen­eral is sidelin­ing op­po­nents and fu­el­ing a boy­cott of the vote while polls say he has deep pop­u­lar sup­port and would win a free and fair elec­tion in a walk.

In­stead, the gov­ern­ment’s hard line has alien­ated many and led in­ter­na­tional ob­servers to say there is no chance that the three-day elec­tion start­ing March 26 will be free and fair. Many Egyp­tian ac­tivists are call­ing for an elec­tion boy­cott af­ter the im­pris­on­ment of three lead­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and the with­drawals of four.

Only one nom­i­nal op­po­nent, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, the leader of the Ghad Party who pre­vi­ously en­dorsed the pres­i­dent for a sec­ond term, will run against Mr. el-Sissi, and many think he was tac­itly re­cruited to run to avoid the em­bar­rass­ment for the gov­ern­ment of a one-can­di­date race.

The han­dling of the race is all the more un­usual be­cause of a fun­da­men­tal fact that even crit­ics of Mr. el-Sissi, who has cul­ti­vated close ties to Pres­i­dent Trump, con­cede. Large blocs of vot­ers re­main de­voted to the pres­i­dent, mo­ti­vated more by a the gov­ern­ment’s prom­ises of sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity over the prospect of po­lit­i­cal free­doms and civil lib­er­ties.

For those Egyp­tian vot­ers, say an­a­lysts, Mr. el-Sissi is a hero to mil­lions.

“Look at the gi­ant projects he got done in just four years: new cities, power plants and ex­pand­ing the Suez Canal,” said Raafat Taw­fik, a mid­dle school his­tory teacher in As­siut, an Up­per Egyp­tian city 230 miles south of Cairo. Mr. el-Sissi “saved us from the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and put his life on the line for this coun­try.”

His solid base in­cludes Egypt’s mas­sive bloc of 26 mil­lion state em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing nearly 1.5 mil­lion teach­ers, a group that is more than dou­ble their Amer­i­can coun­ter­part. They are par­tic­u­larly re­cep­tive to the pres­i­dent’s twin themes of dou­bling down on se­cu­rity and gov­ern­ment­di­rected eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

An­other base for the pres­i­dent is the com­mu­nity of 10 mil­lion Cop­tic Chris­tians. Is­lamic State ter­ror­ist at­tacks on Egyp­tian churches ef­fec­tively have hard­ened the at­tach­ment of this mi­nor­ity group to Mr. el-Sissi, a for­mer head of mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence and army field mar­shal.

“The pres­i­dent made Christ­mas spe­cial this year de­spite the ter­ror at­tacks,” said Tag Gir­gis, a 53-year-old real es­tate de­vel­oper who praised the pres­i­dent for keep­ing his prom­ise to erect a mas­sive church in the New Ad­min­is­tra­tive Cap­i­tal — a $45 bil­lion project rapidly ris­ing up in the desert 28 miles east of Cairo.

Mr. Gir­gis said busi­ness at his va­ca­tion ren­tals at the Red Sea re­sort of Hurghada is be­gin­ning to pick up af­ter a seven-year slump that be­gan with the 2011 ouster of Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak, the long­time au­thor­i­tar­ian pres­i­dent top­pled in the Arab Spring up­ris­ings, and the 2013 re­moval of Pres­i­dent Mo­hammed Morsi, a leader of the now-out­lawed Mus­lim Broth­er­hood.

The num­ber of for­eign vis­i­tors con­tin­ued to fall af­ter Rus­sia sus­pended flights to Egypt in the wake of the Oc­to­ber 2015 down­ing of a St. Pe­ters­burg-bound pas­sen­ger jet tak­ing off from Sharm el-Sheikh. The Is­lamic State claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack, which killed all 224 peo­ple on board. Plans to re­sume flights to Rus­sia this month have been de­layed un­til April.

“My oc­cu­pancy rate is now 60 per­cent, and that’s an im­prove­ment over last year,” said Mr. Gir­gis. “The de­cline in the Rus­sian tourism sec­tor is re­spon­si­ble for our prob­lem, not el-Sissi.”

The in­cum­bent does have vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Se­cu­rity forces have yet to get a han­dle on vi­o­lence against Copts or an ac­tive Is­lamic State pres­ence in Si­nai, where seven gov­ern­ment troops were killed in the lat­est op­er­a­tion against mil­i­tants that started Feb. 9. Na­tion­al­ists con­tinue to ques­tion the el-Sissi gov­ern­ment’s April 2016 de­ci­sion to cede two bar­ren but strate­gi­cally placed is­lands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Ara­bia, re­port­edly in ex­change for Saudi fi­nan­cial and se­cu­rity sup­port.

More than a dozen do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional groups, in­clud­ing Hu­man Rights Watch and the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion of Jurists, have slammed the gov­ern­ment’s re­pres­sion ahead of the vote.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son, on a visit to Cairo this month, said Wash­ing­ton would like a fair and demo­cratic process. “We have al­ways ad­vo­cated for free and fair elec­tions, trans­par­ent elec­tions, not just for Egypt but in any coun­try,” Mr. Tiller­son said.

Tar­get­ing de­mo­graph­ics

De­spite the ab­sence of real com­pe­ti­tion, the re-elec­tion cam­paign is out in full force for the pres­i­dent. Egyp­tian movie stars and soc­cer play­ers are ap­pear­ing in videos to drum up sup­port for Mr. el-Sissi, while old-fash­ioned ward pol­i­tics — in­clud­ing union-backed turnout drives and fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives for sign­ing en­dorse­ments of the pres­i­dent — are back­ing the pres­i­dent, as are ap­peals di­rected at spe­cific de­mo­graphic groups.

Like Cop­tic Chris­tians and civil ser­vants, women are be­ing or­ga­nized to turn out for Mr. el-Sissi’s re-elec­tion, and many say they are en­thu­si­as­tic about it.

“It’s enough that I can walk down the street and feel safe — pre­vi­ously we could not,” said Ayda Has­san, a 39-year-old ad­min­is­tra­tor at the Al-Mas­sala Prepara­tory Girls School in north­ern Cairo, who praised the gov­ern­ment’s stepped-up cam­paign against sex­ual ha­rass­ment on Egyp­tian streets, a ma­jor is­sue for women.

“When we look at the coun­tries around us, we will say, ‘Praise be to God. We are much bet­ter off than them,’” the ad­min­is­tra­tor said.

Four days be­fore the for­mal an­nounce­ment of his can­di­dacy, Mr. el-Sissi moved to add two women to his 33-mem­ber Cab­i­net, bring­ing the per­cent­age of fe­male min­is­ters to just over 18 per­cent — slightly edg­ing out the pro­por­tion in neigh­bor­ing Is­rael, which stands at four out of 23, or 17 per­cent.

“The par­tic­i­pa­tion rate of Egyp­tian women in the up­com­ing elec­tion will be un­prece­dented,” pre­dicted Manal Al-Absi, pres­i­dent of the Arab Academy for Lead­er­ship De­vel­op­ment, a Cairo non­profit that pro­vides ex­ec­u­tive skills train­ing. “And they sup­port the pres­i­dent for pro­vid­ing real so­lu­tions that get done by the promised dead­lines.”

The pres­i­dent’s sup­port­ers of­ten praise Mr. el-Sissi as they com­pare what they view as Egypt’s rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity with the car­nage caused by wars and ter­ror­ism in Syria, Iraq and neigh­bor­ing Libya.

Mr. el-Sissi’s cam­paign knows that with just one ob­scure con­tender, he needs to meet or ex­ceed 47 per­cent of the 54 mil­lion voter turnout of the 2014 bal­lot that brought him to the pres­i­dency to val­i­date the claim that he re­tains the na­tion’s loy­alty.

Just to make sure, there is a Plan B. In the poorer parts of Egypt’s coun­try­side, a pro­vi­sion that fines cit­i­zens 500 Egyp­tian pounds — about $28 — for fail­ing to show up at polling sta­tions is as likely to drive turnout as pas­sion for the can­di­dates.

“El-Sissi is do­ing an awe­some job on se­cu­rity, but be­cause of the higher prices now for crop fer­til­izer, I’m not so happy about my money sit­u­a­tion,” said Ram­sis Al Ouny, a farmer in the ru­ral So­hag gover­norate, about 300 miles south of Cairo. “I’m go­ing to vote for the win­ner, el-Sissi, and at the same time make sure to avoid that 500-pound fee for not show­ing up.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Moussa Mustafa Moussa (above) is run­ning against in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fat­tah el-Sissi. Cam­paign­ing is now un­der­way in Egypt’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, a two-can­di­date vote that’s vir­tu­ally cer­tain to be won by Mr. el-Sissi.

Pres­i­dent El-Sissi is sidelin­ing op­po­nents, though he en­joys pop­u­lar sup­port and would likely win in the elec­tion.

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