The only real suspense in Egypt’s upcoming presidential election – scheduled for later this week – is how close incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will get to securing 100 percent of the vote.
Sisi, who took over as Egyptian president shortly after carrying out a July 2013 military coup, has systematically eliminated opposition to his rule and paved the way for an easy electoral victory. Scholars and human rights groups have proclaimed the upcoming vote a sham.
Several would-be contenders for the presidency were arrested shortly after declaring their intentions to oppose Sisi, who, in the lead-up to voting, has taken totalitarian measures to ensure a singular media narrative.
The Associated Press reported late last month that the Sisi government delivered “guidelines” preventing news outlets from conducting polls about the election or asking Egyptians whom they plan to vote for. The report also noted that critical television journalists were “removed from the air”.
Earlier this month, Sisi delivered a televised address, during which he said that he considers defamation of the police or army as tantamount to treason. Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities have recently called on Egyptian citizens to report media outlets critical of the Sisi regime.
Following recent arrests of a reporter and a cameraman in Alexandria, more than 20 journalists remain behind bars in Egypt, which ranks third in the world in imprisoned journalists. Earlier this month, Egypt’s prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against photojournalist Mohmoud Abu Zeid, also known as “Shawkan”.
The recent wave of political eliminationism and anti-media repression comes against the backdrop of an already repressive post-coup period. Between 2013 and 2017, Egyptian authorities massacred hundreds of unarmed protesters, banned rival political parties and organisations, shut down oppositional television networks, and blocked hundreds of news and NGO websites.
Ready-made election results
The Egyptian election commission has allowed a single candidate, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, to remain in the presidential race, but he is widely viewed as a token figure whose candidacy is meant to justify a sham election.
Moussa is a Sisi supporter who, as recently as two months ago, helped gather signatures on behalf of Sisi’s campaign. According to France 24, when Moussa announced his candidacy for president, his personal Facebook page “included a cover photo with Sisi’s face and ‘we support you as president of Egypt’ written beneath it”.
In practice, the upcoming election is likely to mirror previous votes held during the Sisi era. In 2014, Sisi won 96 percent of the vote in a presidential election characterised by government intimidation of potential candidates, pro-Sisi media propaganda, and widespread voting irregularities.
Egypt’s 2014 constitutional referendum was marred by government and media propaganda and a basic lack of fairness. During that campaign season, thousands of billboard, television, newspaper, and radio advertisements encouraged Egyptians to “vote yes”, while a few citizens who attempted to post small “vote no” flyers were arrested.
Similarly, the 2015 parliamentary elections were rendered farcical by draconian legislation and other forms of repression.
A green light from the US?
US administrations have generally embraced Sisi, some criticisms of his heavy-handed tactics notwithstanding.
Current US President Donald Trump has lavished praise on Sisi, referring to him as a “fantastic guy” and noting that the two men are “very close” and “have a good feeling between them”. Comments such as these have been made as part of the larger context of Trump’s proclamation that foreign allies’ human rights records would not be a priority for his administration.
Former US President Barack Obama‘s relationship with Sisi was slightly more complicated. He showed a willingness to work with Sisi, but did criticise his human rights record.
The Obama administration reportedly attempted to talk Sisi out of carrying out the July 2013 coup that brought him to power, criticised human rights abuses committed by Egyptian security forces, cancelled a joint Egyptian-American military exercise, and briefly suspended Egypt’s military aid package.
Nonetheless, Obama was, overall, supportive of Sisi, regarding him as a necessary strategic ally.
In particular, the Obama administration embraced the Egyptian military’s post-coup roadmap, and made little, if any, attempt to use its leverage to prevent the Egyptian army’s repeated massacres of civilians, which were carried out, at least in part, with American weapons.
For months after the coup, Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki consistently echoed Egyptian military propaganda about the alleged will of the Egyptian people, downplayed the fact that Sisi’s deposed predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, was democratically elected, and deemphasised the importance of voting in democratic societies.
Shortly after the coup and several massacres of protesters, Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, refused the “coup” label outright and arguedthat Sisi had simply been “restoring democracy”.
The Obama government’s consistent refusal to officially label Sisi’s power grab as a military coup was telling. The “coup” label would have required the US government to stop funding the Egyptian military – under American law, it is illegal for the US to fund a foreign government which has come to power via military overthrow.
Ultimately, the Obama administration proceeded with regular deliveries of Egypt’s aid package, which has totalled about $1.6bn annually since the 1978 Camp David Accords, with the bulk of it going to the military.
I visited with US members of Congress in 2013 and 2014, discussing with them my own research on Egypt, US foreign policy, terrorism, and the Sisi regime’s human rights record, among other things.
Consistently, I was told that, while Sisi’s human rights record was problematic, supporting Sisi was good for America because it ensured Egyptian stability, which, it was argued, was essential for US interests in the region.
When I presented evidence suggesting that military coups and mass repression can lead to greater levels of instability, rather than stability, my comments were generally dismissed.
To be fair, some members of Congress did seem sympathetic to my arguments, and appeared concerned about the US government’s apparent inconsistencies on foundational US concepts like democracy and human rights.
Notably, since the coup, some members of Congress have supported cutting off aid to Egypt. In July 2013, John McCain and Lindsey Graham wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling on Obama to both use the “coup” label and cut off aid to Egypt’s military. McCain and Graham have continued to be highly critical of Sisi and the US government’s relationship with him.
Last week, another US member of Congress, Jim McGovern, said he and congressional colleagues were working on a resolution “to address concerns” about the upcoming Egyptian election and the nation’s human rights situation more generally.
Despite some congressional concerns, however, the prevailing policy in Washington has been to support Sisi.
It remains to be seen to what extent, if any, Trump’s recent decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo will affect US policy towards Egypt. Tillerson had been more critical of Sisi than Trump, and generally refused to adopt Egypt’s position on its blockade against Qatar, launched jointly in June 2017 with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Tillerson’s position on the blockade – and larger differences with Trump on US foreign policy – likely contributed to his dismissal.
The bigger picture
To be fair, the US is not the only government to have supported Sisi. Arab dictatorships and other Western democratic governments have sometimes rolled out the proverbial red carpet for Sisi, with important countries in Europe and the Gulf offering the Egyptian leader key diplomatic support, financial aid, or both.
Moreover, and importantly, it would be wrong to place blame for Egypt’s authoritarian turn squarely on the American government.
Egypt’s descent into an authoritarian abyss is, first and foremost, the responsibility of Egypt’s military, police, judiciary, and media apparatuses, and also those Egyptians who supported the July 2013 military takeover and its repressive aftermath.
But it would also be wrong to altogether downplay the American role, especially given the United States‘ historical interferences in developing countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
These interferences have included orchestrating and supporting military coups against democratic governments, and explicitly financing violent authoritarians, among other questionable foreign policies.
Given America’s status as the world’s only superpower, it arguably has a responsibility to affect change in nations like Egypt. If not, then, at a minimum, the US government should seek to live up to its lofty democratic and human rights principles. It is likely that a more consistent US approach would lead to the kind of global stability America’s leaders often claim to desire.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.