, CAIRO, Egypt, Jan 29 – Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi looks set to romp to victory in a March presidential election fast becoming a referendum on his first four-year term, despite a last-minute candidate entering the fray on Monday.
The former army chief who toppled his Islamist predecessor in 2013 won 96.9 percent of the vote in an election the following year and is setting the stage for a similar performance.
Voting takes place from March 26-28, and the deadline for nominations was 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) on Monday.
One last-minute surprise candidate did come forward the head of Egypt’s liberal Ghad party, Mussa Mustapha Mussa.
But given that he backs the president, his token candidacy would appear meant to ensure that Sisi will not be the only name on the ballot paper.
Sisi has ruled Egypt with an iron fist in a first term that has seen him crack down on an Islamist insurgency and agree to often unpopular economic reforms laid down by the International Monetary Fund.
Before becoming president, he was defence minister and head of the army that toppled his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Ironically, he was appointed by the man he ousted, and the crackdown on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that followed Morsi’s removal was long and bloody.
Once in power, Sisi methodically torpedoed all opposition and jailed hundreds of opposition members.
Ahead of the March election, all potential presidential contenders have either been hobbled or thrown in the towel because they feel the entire process has been rigged.
Opposition rarely mentioned
“He wants to be the only candidate in the running,” said Hassan Nafaa, Emeritus professor of political science at Cairo University.
Nafaa believes that in this election, Sisi is seeking “a kind of plebiscite and personal endorsement”.
Across the country, electoral posters show only Sisi, and the government has tightened its grip even further on television and the press.
Rarely is any opposition mentioned, or if it is, coverage is disdainful or pejorative.
Last week, former armed forces chief-of-staff General Sami Anan was excluded from standing shortly after announcing his candidacy.
Anan was accused of illegally announcing his intention to contest the election before getting the military’s approval.
His relatives say they have not heard from him since.
Other top challengers to drop out include Ahmed Shafiq, a prime minister under former long-serving president Hosni Mubarak, and Mohamed Anwar Sadat, a dissident and nephew of the former president of the same name.
Shafiq reversed a pledge to stand after he was returned to Egypt from exile in the United Arab Emirates, while Sadat said the climate was not right for free elections.
On Sunday, Sadat was one of five public figures to call for an election boycott, condemning “security and administrative practices that the current regime took to prevent any fair competition against it”.
On Wednesday, leftist human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, seen as the most serious candidate left standing against Sisi, pulled out.
‘Lack of confidence’
Ali cited “signs that pointed to a will to poison the whole operation and to corrupt and empty it of its supposedly democratic content”.
And in November, military candidate Colonel Ahmed Konsowa found himself in prison soon after announcing he would be a contender.
“The attitude of the presidency and regime shows fear and a lack of confidence,” said Nafaa.
US-based Middle East specialist researcher Samuel Tadros says it is not just potential competition or the concept of democracy that former military man Sisi rejects.
“He has a much deeper hatred of the idea of political compromises, as negotiations,” he said.
While previous presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all rose from the ranks, they all gained political experience before taking Egypt’s top job.
“He literally comes from the barracks to the presidential office without any political education,” Tadros said of Sisi.
He said the anti-Mubarak revolution of January 25, 2011, and its consequences boosted a mistrust of politics in the country.
On the economic front, Sisi has embraced Egypt’s international partners and initiated a series of IMF-mandated reforms in a bid to counter one of the worst crises facing the country.
In November 2016, the IMF granted Egypt a $12-billion loan over three years conditional on reforms including the adoption of a value-added tax, energy subsidy cuts and floating the pound.
But galloping inflation since the currency was devalued in November 2016 and the drastic reduction of state subsidies on fuels and energy have proved highly unpopular.