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Egyptians cast their ballot at a polling station in Cairo during the presidential election, December 10, 2023. © 2023 Nader Nabel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo

(Beirut) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s election to a third six-year term followed a campaign of arrests, intimidation, and onerous requirements for candidates that effectively prevented any meaningful competition, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities announced on December 18, 2023, that Sisi had won with 89.6 percent of the vote in the December 10-12 election.

In the months leading up to the election, security forces curtailed peaceful protests and harassed, detained, and prosecuted dozens of journalists as well as political and human rights activists. The authorities overwhelmingly targeted perceived supporters and family members of Ahmed Tantawy, a vocal opponent of the country’s leadership and a potential presidential challenger whose candidacy the authorities successfully eliminated by preventing him from qualifying. By preventing a competitive election, the authorities severely undermined the right to political participation.

“Months ahead of the December presidential elections, Sisi’s government meticulously eliminated any potential competition,” said Amr Magdi, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s elimination of an independent election is the latest chapter of an ongoing repression campaign that has largely destroyed civic space and shackled political participation in the country over the past decade.”

The authorities used an array of repressive tools to eliminate potential challengers. Tantawy, a former parliament member widely viewed as the most prominent challenger to Sisi, ended his campaign in October after failing to qualify. On November 7, the authorities referred him, his campaign director, and 21 detained supporters to trial before a lower court, solely based on his peaceful outreach campaign to gain support. The next hearing in the case will take place on January 9, 2024.

Human Rights Watch previously documented how the authorities ramped up unlawful intimidation tactics against Tantawy, the former head of the left-wing Nasserist al-Karama (Dignity) Party, along with his family and supporters, after he announced in March that he would return to Egypt from abroad to run for president. Following the announcement, the authorities swiftly detained several of his family members in April and May, but later released them without trial, a rights lawyer told Human Rights Watch.

Following Tantawy’s return to Egypt in May, his campaign was able to galvanize rare and visible street support, as demonstrated by social media videos and media reports, as well as hundreds of thousands of followers on his campaign’s social media pages. However, Tantawy’s campaign was unable to obtain the endorsements of either 20 parliament members or 25,000 voters in at least 15 governorates, one of which the law requires to officially file as a presidential candidate. The parliament is overwhelmingly dominated by pro-Sisi parties and has acted as a rubber stamp, including for 2019 constitutional amendments that entrenched Sisi’s power by allowing him to run for one additional term on top of his previous two, while also extending his current term from four to six years.

Under a September 25 National Elections Commission decree, Egyptian citizens could register endorsements for a candidate by visiting one of 217 designated government notary offices under the Justice Ministry, where they would sign an electronic form in the presence of an office employee. Egyptians abroad could register endorsements at certain diplomatic missions. The authorities allowed only 20 days to file endorsements, from September 25 to October 15.

Tantawy’s outreach campaign, particularly efforts to collect endorsements from the public, faced heavy-handed repression by security agencies, Human Rights Watch said. On October 13, Tantawy ended his campaign, saying that he was only able to collect roughly half the number of the required endorsements. Human Rights Watch documented eight cases in which individuals were prevented from filing endorsements for Tantawy or other potential challengers to Sisi.

The authorities also targeted Tantawy and his supporters with sweeping arrests. As of September 25, when the official voting schedule was announced, security forces had already detained 73 of Tantawy’s supporters and volunteers in more than a dozen governorates, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a leading independent rights organization. As of November, the number had risen to at least 127, the EIPR said.

The prosecution charged most of them with terrorism-related offenses along with “spreading false news.” The EIPR, whose lawyers attended some of the prosecution interrogation sessions, said that security forces detained many of them merely because they filled out an online form to volunteer with Tantawy’s campaign or engaged in social media activity.

Since early 2023 and until mid-September, security forces have detained roughly 2,028 people in connection with their peaceful exercise of free expression and assembly, according to the independent human rights campaign Till The Last Prisoner. The campaign said that only 627 of them were later released.

Human Rights Watch reported in early November that over the previous month, authorities had detained and prosecuted dozens of participants in several peaceful anti-government protests across the country, some of them in relation to the election. The authorities charged many of those arrested with terrorism-related offenses and illegal assembly based on the 2013 and 1914 restrictive assembly laws that criminalize gatherings of five or more people.

Thousands remain in pretrial detention or are serving sentences in cases related to peaceful assembly while authorities have widened the use of an inherently abusive videoconference system to renew pretrial detention without bringing detainees physically before a judge. These long-standing and widespread abuses had chilling effects on political participation in the run up to the election, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities have also severely undermined media freedom and the right to access information. Under President Sisi’s tenure, press freedom watchdogs have listed Egypt among the top 10 countries that jail journalists almost every year since 2014.

In 2023, authorities targeted journalists and media outlets ahead of the election. In October, the Supreme Media Regulatory Council referred staff members of the independent media outlet Mada Masr to the Public Prosecution Office for “practicing media activities without a license” and “publishing false news without checking its sources.”

In February, the public prosecution referred three Mada Masr journalists to trial in another case stemming from a report alleging corruption in the pro-Sisi Nation’s Future Party. In June, the authorities blocked access to two independent news websites, Masr360 and al-Solta al-Rabaa, according to local and international rights groups, joining hundreds of websites blocked since 2017.

“It is clear that the election was a meaningless charade in which Sisi was unwilling to face a real challenger,” Magdi said. “Blocking political plurality to entrench a one-man rule is not the answer for genuine stability, prosperity, and good governance.”

Eliminating Presidential Challengers

Human Rights Watch spoke with three human rights lawyers representing detainees from Tantawy’s campaign in different cities under investigation by the notorious Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), which often works in coordination with the abusive National Security Agency to lock up political opponents. The lawyers said that authorities rounded people up based solely on the perception that they supported Tantawy.

One lawyer said that on September 20, security forces arrested two of his clients, a 42-year-old man and a 45-year-old woman, at their homes, in Menoufia and Mansoura governorates respectively, after they posted tweets on X, formerly Twitter, supporting Tantawy and for democratic change.

Another lawyer who represented four detainees said that one of them, a 36-year-old employee in a petrol company, was arrested on October 9 at a coffee shop in Suez city after the police checked his car and found unofficial statements of support for Tantawy. The lawyer said that another of the four is a 28-year-old woman whom the police arrested at her workplace in Luxor city the day after she organized a meeting for some of Tantawy’s supporters at a coffee shop in Luxor, according to a source at Tantawy’s campaign. The SSSP ordered all to be held in pretrial detention.

On October 9, the Interior Ministry acknowledged in an official statement that security forces had detained eight people in four governorates for collecting unofficial support statements for a “candidate” without naming Tantawy, under the pretext that support statements are “counterfeit endorsements.” Mohamed Lotfy, the director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), an independent organization, told Human Rights Watch that the SSSP charged the eight, including a 16-year-old child, with “participating in a terrorist group while knowing its purposes” and ordered sending all of them to pretrial detention.

Interviews, dozens of social media videos, and reporting by international and Egyptian media outlets have all illuminated the authorities’ intimidation in September and October. These include security instructions to hotels prohibiting them from hosting any opposition conferences, physical harassment by security officials in civilian clothes or members of pro-Sisi parties against people attempting to register their endorsements for other candidates outside the notary offices, and bureaucratic obstructions for registering endorsements.

The authorities also used harassment against Gameela Ismail, the head of the al-Dostour (Constitution) Party and a prominent politician, who also discontinued her campaign in October.

A 21-year-old Cairo University student and volunteer with Tantawy’s campaign told Human Rights Watch that in October she went with another volunteer to a Cairo notary office to meet with Tantawy’s supporters, but three policemen stopped them, took photos of their national IDs, searched their personal mobile phones, and questioned them about who they were and what they were doing there.

On September 30, Elham Eidarous, a leftist feminist activist and cofounder of the Bread and Freedom Party, recounted in a video at the notary office in Cairo’s al-Mohandeseen neighborhood that a group of unidentified people frightened her with thugs and forcibly prevented her and Magdy Hemdan, a high-profile leader of the Conservatives Party, from entering the notary office after they both hinted that they would not endorse President Sisi. Eidarous told Human Rights Watch that she filed a complaint with the public prosecution, but her lawyer said it was never investigated. Hemdan posted a Facebook video blaming Sisi supporters for the attack.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three women and a man who went to multiple notary offices between late September and mid-October to file official endorsements. One of them, a 45-year-old journalist, said that on October 6, she went with five others to a Cairo notary office to register her endorsement for Ismail, but they found the office door shut during working hours. She said the six waited on the stairs leading to the office entrance until a group of unidentified people carrying photos of Sisi “pushed everyone away” and blocked the entrance. The six left without registering their endorsements.

A 27-year-old journalist, a 35-year-old journalist, and the Cairo University student all said that between September 26 and October 14 they separately visited multiple notary offices in Cairo and the adjacent al-Qalyubia governorates to file endorsements for Tantawy, but each time they were met by unidentified people they described as “thugs,” who pushed Tantawy’s supporters and harassed them in front of the offices. Sometimes the police were present but did not intervene, the three said.

The 27-year-old journalist said that on September 26, a group of women attacked her and a friend outside a notary office. She said they beat her friend on his face and dragged her along by her hair for roughly 15 minutes, only letting them go when they said they would not file the endorsement. Two policemen were present during the attack, one of whom told her friend to “take her and go away, better than being further insulted.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed 24 videos posted on X, formerly Twitter, by Egyptians who tried to file endorsements inside the country and in embassies abroad between September 27 and October 7. In these videos, citizens said that they were prevented from filing endorsements for Tantawy in 20 offices across the country and at least two embassies abroad.

In some cases, people in the videos said that notary office employees refused their requests to file endorsements, citing vague reasons including that the electronic registration system was not working. In other cases, people in the videos said they were not allowed to enter notary offices because employees had shut the doors, or the entrances were blocked and controlled by unidentified people who only allowed supporters of President Sisi to enter. In two videos, citizens living abroad said that the Egyptian consulates or embassies in Saudi Arabia and South Africa refused their requests to file endorsements for Tantawy.

Two videos circulated on X on October 3 showed a group of Tantawy supporters protesting their prevention from filing endorsements inside the notary office at the Tenth of Ramadan city in Cairo. Another video, also on October 3, showed a group of citizens in front of a notary office in Alexandria shouting that employees at the office refused to allow them to file endorsements for Tantawy. One said he has been visiting the notary office for six days but was never able to file the endorsement.

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