Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi has moved toward assuring victory in the upcoming March election with most of his potential opponents bowing out or facing arrest.
The election has called into question the reforms sparked by protests during the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square seven years ago.
Jane Arraf, NPR correspondent based in Cairo tells WBUR’s Here & Now that the current political climate in Egypt represents a shift away from democratic progress.
“There is virtually no freedom, the country is under martial law,” she tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “A lot of the promise has gone away, that doesn’t mean it won’t come back.”
However, Jane noted that Sisi has some popularity among Egyptians who think he is what the country needs.
Sisi, formal general, gets credit from some Egyptians for keeping the country together while other neighboring countries have descended into despair.
Activist Mona Eltahawy said in an interview with NPR, that despite Sisi’s hard-line tactics against dissidents, the spirit of the revolution spawned in Tahrir Square still persists among ordinary Egyptians.
“The revolution lives through the social change we see taking place: women traveling alone to study abroad while unmarried, women divorcing, an alliance of queer Egyptians and online an expression of bold sexuality,” said Eltahawy.
On Monday, hours before the filing deadline, Mousa Moustafa Mousa, chairman of the Ghad party, added his name as a potential challenger to Sisi, but critics say the move was an attempt by Sisi to camouflage a government crackdown.
“I believe he is doing the bidding of Sisi and the regime,” Eltahawy said. “It plays in Sisi’s favor because if Sisi were running alone, it would make it obvious that this is a pretense of an election that is intended to extend Sisi’s time in office; unopposed.”
Although activists like Eltahawy see Mousa’s bid as a Sisi ploy, Mousa announced at a press conference that he intended on mounting a serious challenge to Sisi.
As elections inch closer, Eltahawy said Sisi’s rule has been a setback for political reform.
Eltahawy was part of the January 2011 uprising in Egypt that led to the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
Those uprisings, which spread across Libya, Tunisia and Syria, were part of the larger movement that became know as the Arab Spring. Protesters called for the reformation of government institutions, the establishment of civil liberties and an end to persistent economic instability.
Eltahawy recounted the violence she encountered at one of the many Tahrir Square protests where police and protesters clashed resulting in 40 dead and over 3,000 injured. She said the riot police broke her left arm and fractured her right hand, but she said that people are still willing to challenge the military government.
“To challenge the military is very difficult, but people are thinking ahead in a way that Egyptians never used to.”
She said Egyptians are looking beyond Sisi for a leader to take Egypt into a stable democratic era that thrives on fair elections.
The man that some envision as a replacement to Sisi is Khalid Ali, a prominent human rights lawyer who is known to not only criticize Sisi, but the Egyptian establishment more generally. Ali is among those who dropped out of this years election, but Eltahawy said it is only a matter of time before his name appears on a ballot.
“Egyptians are patient,” said Eltahawy. “There will come a time maybe not like January (2011), but people who have never been involved are starting to speak up and they are talking about Khalid Ali.”