Egypt prepares for election amid security concerns

While incumbent Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi looks certain to win Egypt’s presidential election when the country goes to the polls on 26-28 March, the security situation is less predictable.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi
Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi seems certain to win the election.

Introduction

Egypt goes to the polls on 26-28 March in a presidential election that pits incumbent Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi against challenger Moussa Mostafa Moussa. Voting will take place in polling stations across the country from 09:00-21:00. Around 58 million Egyptians can vote in the election, including many of the 9.5 million Egyptians residing outside the country. They were able to vote at Egyptian consulates and embassies in 124 countries earlier this month.

Sisi will almost certainly win. Moussa is a former Sisi supporter who appears to be undermining his own campaign. Any real challengers have been arrested or withdrew. However, a win for Sisi is not enough. A group of the major parties has set a target of 30 million voters participating in the election to counter what they describe as a foreign plot to boycott the vote. They will hold a series of conferences across the country to promote their campaign. This target is achievable – the 2014 election saw a reported 25.5 million votes cast, 97% of which were reportedly for Sisi.

The banned Muslim Brotherhood and some senior political figures had called for a boycott; they include the chairman of the Strong Egypt Party Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who ran in 2012 and obtained a fifth of the vote, the chairman of the Reform and Development Party, former senior civil servants and running mates of a disqualified candidate.

Seven candidates either withdrew or were prevented from running. Two were arrested, including Sisi’s predecessor as chief of staff from 2005-12 and biggest election threat, Major-General Sami Anan. The general’s lawyer was then stabbed outside his home by unknown assailants. Colonel Ahmed Konsowa was also detained by Egyptian military prosecutors in December 2017, after announcing plans to run, and sentenced to six years in prison.

Moussa Mostafa Moussa

Moussa is chairman of El-Ghad Party, which until mid-January had been collecting signatures for the Sisi campaign. The party is an offshoot of the New Wafd Party and has no seats in parliament. His candidacy was a last-minute affair, with his lawyer Samir Elaiwa submitting the relevant paperwork 15 minutes before the 29 January deadline.

Moussa claimed to have over 47,000 pledges of support from citizens and the backing of 27 lawmakers. Most of the lawmakers represent the Monufia governorate, which has seen anti-Sisi protests. In contrast, the Sisi campaign counted pledges from more than 915,000 citizens and more than 500 lawmakers.

Moussa is basing his platform on solving Egypt’s economic problems, pledging to improve Egyptians’ economic conditions within six months. He reportedly has the support of the Egyptian Council for Arab Tribes, which he heads. The council announced the support of its 86 tribes, with membership of approximately 2,650,000. The farmers’ union also reportedly supports Moussa’s campaign.

Moussa had been in a dispute from 2005-2011 over control of El-Ghad Party with party founder Ayman Nour. Fighting between their supporters led to the burning of the party’s headquarters in Talaat Harb, Cairo. A repeat of such incidents are unlikely, as the party is now a minor political force with no seats in parliament.

Risks at rallies

Allan & Associates warns that risks to personnel are raised during rallies, and the same precautions should be taken as in any large crowd in Egypt. The risk of petty theft is higher, and it becomes more difficult to identify threats. Where possible, women should avoid entering crowds unaccompanied, due to heightened risk of sexual harassment or assault. Rallies themselves are also targets for attacks; in 2014 an explosive device thrown at a pro-Sisi rally in Cairo injured four.

There is a chance of fighting between Sisi’s supporters and detractors. Such violence between anti- and pro-Sisi protestors has occurred in Beheira, Cairo, Giza and Sharkia. Fatalities are a rarity, though there is risk of injury from anti-Sisi elements or from security forces dispersing crowds. Since 2013, pro-Sisi rallies have taken place in Alexandria, Beheira, Cairo, Dakahlia, Damietta, Giza, Menoufia, Sharkia and Suez.

Cairo
Large rallies are to be expected in Cairo in the Tahrir Square-Talaat Harb area, where the El-Ghad Party is headquartered. Tahrir Square is likely to be the hub of pro-Sisi activity due to its significance as the epicentre of such rallies in recent years. Although Moussa lacks political capital, demonstrations by his supporters around the El-Ghad headquarters in Talaat Harb are likely, though violence between Moussa and Sisi supporters is unlikely.

Any crowds near the press syndicate offices in Al Wayli should be avoided where possible due to the history of violent unrest in the area. In Cairo, security forces used birdshot and tear gas to disperse protestors at the press syndicate offices in 2014 and 2015, and improvised incendiary devices were thrown in the area in fighting between anti- and pro-Sisi factions in 2014.

Alexandria
Most pro-Sisi rallies in Alexandria have taken place at the El Qaed Ibrahim Mosque in Bab Sharqi, usually after Friday prayers. Such rallies have also taken place at the square in Sidi Gabir. Violence between anti-Sisi demonstrators and security forces took place at University of Alexandria in 2014.

Security challenges

While the military challengers have been removed from the contest, military challenges remain. Egypt is under a state of emergency until April 2018, a year after it was imposed following deadly church bombings.

Islamic State
Comprehensive Operation Sinai was announced on 9 February, with Islamic State its main target. The operation is likely to become highly politicised and increase in intensity closer to the vote. Islamic State’s local branch Wilayat Sinai has warned Egyptians to stay away from polling centres and other election-related installations across the country, stating that they are targets. An 11 February video from the group showed an execution, an operation against the Egyptian army and a threat to turn the country into a graveyard during the election.

Islamic State has regularly destroyed tanks and military vehicles in Sinai using IEDs

The group’s capacity is highest in North Sinai, where is has carried out large-scale attacks, including the slaughter of 305 in an attack on Sufi worshippers in the Al Rawdah mosque in Bir Al Abad on 24 November 2017. Within days of the attack, Sisi had ordered army chief of staff General Mohamed Farid Hegazy to restore security in Sinai ‘within three months using brute force’.

Islamic State has regularly destroyed tanks and military vehicles in Sinai using IEDs. Sniper attacks on soldiers and murders of alleged informants, Christians or tribesmen are common. In recent weeks the group targeted El-Arish airport several times.

Islamic State activity outside of Sinai has targeted Christians and security forces. In Cairo it attacked a Coptic church and shop in Helwan, leaving 10 dead in December 2017; 29 people were killed in an attack on Copts in Al Minya in May 2017; Attacks in Giza governorate included three people killed at a checkpoint in Al Ayyat in July 2017; and four people died in a person-borne IED attack on security forces at the Bahariya Oasis in May 2017. The group poses an abduction risk to personnel and has carried out sporadic kidnappings and killings of foreign workers in Cairo and Marsa Matrouh.

Brotherhood affiliates
A crackdown is still ongoing against the Muslim Brotherhood’s terrorist affiliates, as well as the peaceful opposition. Police action in Al Wayli, Cairo, on 9 February left three suspected members of the Hasam Movement dead and ten arrested. Hasam supporters have also been killed in fighting in 15th of May City, New Cairo City, and Al-Marj since 2017.

Additionally, Al-Qaeda affiliates and arms smugglers operate in the Western Desert region, which should be avoided where possible.

Forecast

Sisi is highly likely to win the election. Large-scale pro-Sisi rallies will take place across the country, disrupting traffic and becoming targets. However, economic challenges risking political instability will remain over the mid to long term.

Comprehensive Operation Sinai and related military activity is likely to increase in intensity closer to the election date as the security situation becomes more politicised. Islamic State is likely to attempt attacks on polling stations, government offices and pro-Sisi conferences or rallies, and has capacity to do so in Sinai and major population centres. Attacks by Islamic State on Coptic Christian places of worship are likely at religious gatherings, particularly around Coptic Easter Sunday on 8 April. As such, these areas should be avoided where possible.

Protests are not confined to election-related issues. Anti-American demonstrations are highly likely closer to 14 May, the date of the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Localised violent protests in Upper Egypt involving Nubians are likely to continue, focusing on land disputes.

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