And Then There Was One: Last Rival to Egypt’s El-Sisi Drops Out

Updated on
  • Khaled Ali blames recent crackdowns for decision not to run
  • El-Sisi feels ‘no pressure’ to put on pretense of fair vote

Egyptian presidential hopeful and rights lawyer Khaled Ali reacts after he announces his withdrawal from the race, in Cairo on Jan. 24, 2018. 

Photographer: Amr Nabil/AP

The last credible challenger to Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt’s presidential election bowed out on Wednesday, clearing the way for an incumbent who appears more intent on cementing his policies than appeasing any concerns about a fading democracy.

Khaled Ali, a former presidential nominee and constant thorn in the side of the government, said he would not submit his papers to the electoral commission for the March ballot, citing what he described as a pervasive undemocratic climate and the crackdown against other potential candidates.

A day earlier, the military announced it was investigating another potential rival to El-Sisi, Lieutenant General Sami Annan, on a number of allegations, including “incitement” against the armed forces.

El-Sisi views this election as a “purely routine event,” said Riccardo Fabiani, senior analyst for North Africa with the Eurasia Group. “He knows that he’s under no pressure from abroad to play by the rules, so there’s no incentive domestically or internationally to make this a free and fair election.”

Ali made headlines in Egypt last year by challenging in court a maritime border pact between Egypt and Saudi Arabia touted by the leaders of both countries. He said that many of his campaign workers had been detained before he had even announced his candidacy formally, and now faced charges.

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El-Sisi is a career military officer who won the presidency a year after a military-backed popular uprising that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi from power in 2013. Since then, he has launched a broad crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Mursi, leaving hundreds dead and thousands in jail. The offensive has since been extended to target activists and other dissenters, prompting critics to accuse the president of building a de facto police state.

The president, who filed his nomination Wednesday, said in a speech marking police day that Egypt was moving along a path of reform and that everyone should focus on that goal. “We’re talking about building, reconstruction and development,” he said, clenching his fist in the air. “No one should take us left and right, trying to get us lost with talk that is worth nothing, please.”

Even if they had been allowed to contest, few commentators believed any of the challengers stood a real chance of victory over El-Sisi, given his loyal following and dominance of the powerful state apparatus. Ali and Annan are just the latest to fall away.

Ahmed Shafiq, a former premier who ran against Mursi in the 2012 race, disappeared briefly after announcing his candidacy, only to resurface and say he’d reconsidered. Former lawmaker Mohamed Anwar Sadat, a nephew of former President Anwar Sadat, withdrew his candidacy, also citing the failure to uphold democratic norms.

Another candidate, the little-known Colonel Ahmed Konsowa, was arrested shortly after announcing in December he’d contest, and was sentenced to six years in prison by a military court for violating rules that bar active duty officers from running for office. Ali, himself, was fighting a court conviction for making a rude gesture that could have disqualified him.

“Even many of the state’s backers believe Annan’s arrest was overkill,” said Hani Sabra, founder of the consultancy Alef Strategies. “If Sisi indeed runs unopposed, the state will confront criticism for the likely low voter turnout.”

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