Egyptian presidential candidates pressured to drop out

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ARA_news_egy_flag.jpegCAIRO – Egypt's presidential election scheduled for late March has taken on an increasingly authoritarian flavor, as government officials have pressured rivals to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to drop out.

Experts said Sisi is presenting Egyptian voters more with a referendum on his rule rather than an election between candidates. They expressed regret over the situation given that Sisi retains popularity among many of his citizens.

"El-Sisi is viewed as the military figure who saved Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013," said Amr El Shobki, a political scientist and chairman of the Arab Forum For Alternatives, a think tank in Cairo. "I think that this lack of choices is a loss for the pro-Sisi movement, which still has a majority of support despite the decline in his popularity."

On Wednesday, leftist lawyer Khaled Ali bowed out of the race, saying the government was intimidating his campaign workers.

"Khaled Ali had to announce his withdrawal," said Hamada El Semelawey, 27, an Ali supporter and Cairo University graduate student. "It's over because El Sisi would have destroyed us."

The day before, authorities detained former armed force chief of staff Sami Anan on Tuesday on charges that his campaign violated military law when he failed to seek his commanders' permission to run for office.

Last week, former lawmaker Mohammed Anwar Sadat – the nephew of former President Anwar Sadat – terminated his candidacy. Also, former prime minister and air force general Ahmed Shafiq pulled out of the race earlier this month after security forces detained him in a hotel when he returned to Egypt from exile in the United Arab Emirates. Shafiq has since been released.

Anan's declaration to run drew particular ire from the military establishment after the 69-year-old lieutenant-general criticized Sisi's social and economic policies in a speech on January 13. He depicted Sisi's regime as rigid and lacking compassion for average Egyptians as the government has implement tough economic reforms, including removing subsidies for food and fuel, as part of a $12 billion IMF loan.

"Egypt must be a human state before it is a state of stone," said Shafiq, who slammed the military's domination of the economy and the courts.

Anan's family said they don't know where he is being held.

"All the phones of the campaign team have been shut off," said the candidate's son, Samir Anan. "All we know is that they took my father around 11 am while he was on the way to his political party headquarters."

A massive mobilization effort characterized el-Sisi's reelection drive even before the president officially declared his reelection bid on Saturday.

Sisi has obtained the endorsement of 464 out of a total of 596 members of Egypt's parliament. And the pro-El-Sisi "In Order to Build It" campaign said last month that 13 million citizens had signed its petition urging the president to run for a second term.

The president has made strides in fulfilling his promise to improve the lot of average Egyptians. He has embarked on massive infrastructure projects while moving dramatically to reduce the country's trade deficit. The IMF recently revised its growth outlook for Egypt to 4.8 percent for the current fiscal year.

Still, average Egyptians still are suffering from last year's dramatic currency devaluation which saw the local currency loose nearly half its value.

"My wife told me it would be smart to go to the local primary school and sign the endorsements for el-Sisi," said Girgis Gaber, a 36-year-old sanitation worker in downtown Cairo. "But then the civil servants there said I should let a group of office workers jump the line in front of me. I decided that I was tired of waiting for bureaucrats and of waiting for El Sisi's promises of a better life to come true."

Mona Khalil, executive director of the Russian-Egyptian Business Council, rejected the notion that el Sisi's campaign is effectively a Middle Eastern variant of the elections also to be held next month by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin has moved to prevent any real contest to his reelection bid using the courts to stop his most viable opponent Alexei Navalny, a popular anti-corruption campaigner from running.

"Putin has been in power since 2000 and El-Sisi is heading into his second term of presidency, during which he is expected to continue his economic reforms and giant industrial and national projects," she said. "Of course, the results of presidential elections are predictable in both cases, but the recent cabinet reshuffle including six female ministers gives many of us hope for innovative approaches to political solutions for Mr. El Sisi's second term."

But advocates for democracy in Egypt are despondent.

"It seems that Mr. Sisi is now running on his own," said Sadat. "The way that rules are written he can now win even if only five percent of the electorate shows up to vote for him. The military now has complete control over the economy, and the society and they are now running the whole show."

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