Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed any remaining doubt last week when he formally announced his intention to seek a second term in Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections.
The Egyptian army chief-turned-president’s announcement surprised few experts, who say el-Sisi is almost guaranteed to be re-elected after he made it nearly impossible for any real political opponent to challenge his firm grip on power.
“I think the word ‘election’ is probably too generous,” said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, about the vote that is scheduled to take place in March.
On Tuesday, the army arrested presidential contender Sami Anan, former head of the Egyptian armed forces. Anan was accused of committing violations that “warrant official investigation”, according to the Supreme Committee of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
The army said the 69-year-old had not obtained the army’s approval to run for president and accused him of seeking to divide the armed forces and citizens of Egypt.
Speaking to Al Jazeera before Anan was arrested, Kaldas said the Sisi government has “made it so untenable and so undesirable and so dangerous to run” for president today, that it is “fairly discouraging for anybody who would seriously entertain” the idea.
He also said the Egyptian government appears unconcerned by whether anyone views the election as credible.
“The question is: what’s worse, a convincing sham, or one that’s transparently a sham?” Kaldas said.
The election is set to take place from March 26-28. Presidential hopefuls have until January 29 to collect enough signatures to officially submit their candidacies.
A runoff vote will be held in April if no candidate receives more than 50 percent support in the first round.
To be eligible to run for president, a candidate must collect 25,000 signatures from constituents across 15 governorates (with at least 1,000 signatures from each area), or the signatures of 20 members of parliament, Kaldas explained.
“The infrastructure for a campaign for anybody is quite limited, and only further undermines how tenable an opposition candidate could be,” he said.
In a televised address announcing his bid from Cairo on Friday, el-Sisi urged Egyptians to vote in order to “preserve the democratic experience that began four years ago”, referring to the 2014 election, which he won with 97 percent support.
But in the weeks leading up to the 2018 elections, multiple media reports have suggested that would-be opposition candidates were under pressure to drop out of the race.
“It’s going to be a show,” said Nezar AlSayyad, an Egyptian historian and the former head of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, about the polls.
AlSayyad told Al Jazeera he expects the Sisi camp to “allow two or three people to run” for president, but it will “absolutely make sure that these people have absolutely no chance of even scoring a few percentage points”.
Crackdown on opposition
Last week, Anan announced he would run for president only hours after el-Sisi had confirmed he was seeking re-election.
“I call on civilian and military institutions to maintain neutrality towards everyone who had announced their intention to run and not take unconstitutional sides of a president who will leave his post in a few months,” Anan said.
He also named Hisham Geneina, the former head of Egypt’s anti-corruption watchdog, as part of his election team.
Amr Khalifa, an Egyptian journalist and political analyst, told Al Jazeera that the lead-up to the election has been “incredibly well-organised theatre”.
Khalifa said he expected el-Sisito “win [the election] quite handily”, not least because of recent events “where he has obliterated those within the inner circles that he views to be problematic” to winning a second term in power.
The political atmosphere in Egypt has left the country without any real opposition, he said.
Egypt has seen an unprecedented crackdown on human rights activists since the 2013 military coup.
Activists have been jailed in large numbers or barred from travelling outside Egypt, while the government also passed legislation to restrict the work of non-governmental organisations.
The NGO law, as it is known, was described by Amnesty International as “a catastrophic blow for human rights groups working in Egypt” that would give “the government extraordinary powers to control NGOs and imposes harsh punishments and fines for any violation of its draconian provisions”.
The Egyptian government has also blocked access to several websites, including ones belonging to local news outlets and civil society groups.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), meanwhile, reported that at least 20 journalists were behind bars in Egypt in relation to their work at the end of last year, making it one of the world’s top three jailers of journalists for 2017.
“How can there be real opposition when there are well over 63,000 political prisoners – that we believe we know of – in Egyptian jails?” Khalifa said.
“Many of these people are part and parcel of the engine of change. When you have agents of change silenced, killed [and] tortured, how is it that we’re supposed to simply accept a man of the army as being representative [of] change?”
Khalifa added that Egyptians appear resigned to el-Sisi being re-elected and he expects turnout at the polls to be low. He said many people are asking: “Why should I bother [voting, when] we already know the results?”
Would-be candidates under pressure
On Wednesday, Amnesty International said Anan’s arrest was “an attack on the rights to public participation and freedom of expression” in Egypt.
“It appears that Sami Anan has been detained because he was widely considered to be a serious contender” against Sisi, said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty’s director of North Africa campaigns.
“This is not the first time such a contender has been prevented from running against the incumbent.”
Indeed, a handful of presidential hopefuls have abandoned their campaigns in recent weeks.
Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik’s plan to run was short-lived after he withdrew his potential candidacy earlier this month. “I saw that I would not be the ideal person to lead the state during the coming period,” Shafik said in a statement posted on Twitter.
One of Shafik’s lawyers accused the Egyptian government of putting pressure on the 76-year-old by threatening to re-investigate previous corruption allegations against him, the New York Times reported.
Khaled Ali, an opposition leader who ran in the 2012 presidential polls, also announced his intention to run this time around, but he faces a suspended jail term that could hamper his ability to even present his formal candidacy.
The human rights lawyer was sentenced to three months in prison for “offending public decency” after he allegedly made an obscene gesture during a protest against Egypt’s decision to cede control over two islands to Saudi Arabia.
A hearing in his appeal against that sentence was recently adjourned. “They are [fabricating videos] against me because I am the lawyer of workers,” Ali told a judge during an appeal hearing on January 4, according to the Egypt Independent newspaper.
“This case was fabricated because I plan running for president,” he said.
In December, Ahmed Konsowa, an Egyptian army colonel, was sentenced to six years in prison after he announced his intention to run for president. Konsowa was charged with “stating political opinions contrary to the requirements of military order”, his lawyer said.
Another high-profile potential candidate, Mohamed Anwar el-Sadat, the nephew of Egypt’s assassinated former president, Anwar Sadat, also recently cancelled his campaign.
A spokesperson for el-Sadat’s campaign told Reuters that at least three Cairo hotels reportedly refused to rent el-Sadat a space from which to officially launch his candidacy and printers refused to print his campaign manifesto.
“It’s a systematic campaign to kill off candidates. I call it a political assassination process,” Osama Badie told the news agency.
‘Mandate to continue’
Omar Ashour, a professor at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, told Al Jazeera he believed the government would allow a candidate to challenge el-Sisi “who is not that threatening”.
“Sami Anan was very threatening. Shafik was very threatening. Even Khaled Ali, despite the lack of military muscle … was a bit threatening,” Ashour said.
“Now we’ll have to wait and see who will come up, probably somebody who does not have that much support on the ground and does not have any support in the military establishment.”
According to AlSayyad, should el-Sisi be re-elected, as most people expect he will be, it will signal a dangerous road ahead for Egypt.
“For many Egyptians who are Sisi’s supporters, they are not only going to think [the election is] legitimate; they are going to think it’s a mandate for him to continue what he is doing,” he said.