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Egyptian President Sisi will win again, partly thanks to the Christian vote

In return for protection, the Copts will vote loyally this week for a man whose secret police now dominate political life in Egypt 

Robert Fisk
Monday 26 March 2018 15:38 BST
Sisi won 96.1 per cent of the vote in 2014, and he is likely to get similar numbers again
Sisi won 96.1 per cent of the vote in 2014, and he is likely to get similar numbers again

So here comes another Potemkin election for the Egyptian people. Whether the people are supposed to be fooled or the Empress Catherine herself – this time, it’s Field Marshal/President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the role – is a good question.

In a country which has become accustomed to fake elections, fake newspapers and fake parliaments, you have to wonder at the sheer courageous, all-purpose energy of those Egyptians who will turn out to vote. And I can promise you (let us not be presumptuous or even cynical) that Sisi – of whose face his people once made chocolate cakes and candy bars, so great was their affection for him when he rid them of the meddlesome if elected Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi – will win a vast, overwhelming and totally predictable majority.

And there’s no doubt, too, that among his most faithful supporters will be – in fact, must be – the Christians of Egypt, for the Coptic Orthodox Church and its pope have shown only fealty towards the Great President who won 96.1 per cent of the vote in 2014. I say “must” because the Christians of Egypt, like the Christians of Iraq and of Syria, have a special place among the Middle East’s regimes. They are a minority, and minorities always need protection. And who can give protection more securely – remember the Copts are just 8 per cent of Egyptians – than the autocrats who rule them?

Donald Trump shakes hands with Egypt President El-Sisi and pledges support to his regime

This is both the minority’s sanctuary and its fate. No matter how much the Christians wish to live in a secular society of dignity and justice, they must rely upon oppressive Muslim rulers to safeguard their dignity and justice. Over past decades, Christian-Muslim violence was largely confined to upper (ie southern) Egypt where village sheiks were often opposed by equally ignorant Coptic clerics. More recently, in Cairo, the Copts became far more political targets – slaughtered en masse by Isis and their fellow Islamists as part of their campaign to take over the Sinai Peninsula and destroy the Sisi regime.

So Sisi has been hard at work cultivating the Christians of Egypt. And, praise where it is due, he has broken free of the Muslim lockstep into which one of his predecessors, Anwar Sadat, placed Egyptians when he proclaimed that he was a Muslim president “for a Muslim people” and feuded with the Copts. Sadat even imprisoned the Coptic pope.

In contrast with past rulers, Sisi has given at least five permits for new churches in Egypt, angrily bombed Islamists in Libya after they cut the throats of 21 Egyptian Coptic workers on a beach, constructed a church to their memory in their home village and – perhaps most important of all – was the first Egyptian president to attend mass at Christmas.

The problem is that those Muslim Egyptians who oppose Sisi – not just the Muslim Brotherhood (now, of course, all “terrorists” in official parlance) but any Muslim, even a middle-class Muslim, who is now being broken on the wheel of economic “reform” and enduring massive inflation under a president who has arrested or intimidated all serious opponents into abandoning their candidature in the elections – may regard his Christian fellow citizens as an integral part of the Sisi regime. This, unfortunately, is what they have become.

Thus the Copts will vote loyally this week for a man whose secret police now dominate political life in Egypt and which have now reinstitutionalised torture as a routine part of the security apparatus, who arrest and beat political opponents, bloggers, students, veterans of the original 2011 anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square, journalists and free-thinking politicians. Hangings, deaths in police custody and disappearances – those almost natural phenomena of all security states – are now part of Egyptian life. Of an estimated 106,000 prisoners in Egypt, Human Rights Watch believes around 60,000 of them are political.

The destruction of Sisi’s electoral opponents before this week’s vote would have been farcical had it not been so tragic in a country which was once – during the British occupation, for example – so brave and so insistent in demanding national freedom and western-style democracy. The lugubrious list of would-be presidential candidates and their fate might, in a different age, form the backbone of one of those Egyptian television comedies so beloved across the Arab world.

Ahmed Shafiq, the Mubarakite candidate to challenge Morsi after the 2011 revolution, announced and then withdrew his candidacy for the presidency after “pressure” from the Sisi regime. Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, the nephew of the Great Man who actually looks like his assassinated presidential uncle, also chose to stand down as a candidate. Just over five years ago, he was supporting the “conservative Muslim” Sisi and told me in an interview then that the “security solution” (crushing Islamists in the Sinai desert) could only be temporary. “The people are just saying ‘these are terrorists’ about the Brotherhood and are putting pressure on the government,” he said then. “The media are all in one direction and this does not help. This makes life difficult for people who want to come up with compromise and flexibility. In Egypt, we have to learn to live together.”

But living together, it seems, must now be in a “deep state” under the all-wise and benevolent Field Marshal. Along with Sadat, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali dropped out of the “race”. As for a former Islamist who was a candidate for the presidency in 2012, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – who argued that the army should not be held responsible for Sisi’s misrule – was simply arrested after a visit to London. Even the army itself is not immune to Sisi’s rule of law. Lieutenant General Sami Anan, the former chief of staff, was imprisoned shortly after announcing his intention to stand. One of his aides, Hisham Geneina, the former head of the national auditing agency, has since been arrested.

The only man to have escaped ignominy after deciding – with only minutes to go – that he would be a candidate, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, is a fervent supporter of none other than Sisi himself. In an extraordinary and almost embarrassing interview last week, he claimed that no one had been arrested, that Sami Anan had “infringed military laws” and that Khaled Ali may not have had sufficient signatures on his candidature papers. “I don’t believe anyone has been threatened – never!” Ali proclaimed. He wants factories reopened, and proper salaries for the poor and the educated.

Those who had dropped out of the election were – a constant Sisi obsession, this – “paid by outsiders”. No wonder many opposed to Sisi are simply calling for a boycott of the election.

A boycott will make no difference. Here are my two personal bets on the Egyptian poll, apart from the Christian support for Sisi. First, the result. I have a hunch it will be somewhere between 93.73 per cent and 97.37 per cent for the President. We’ll see. But my second gamble is a shoo-in. Will President Trump call Mr Sisi after his election victory to congratulate him? Of course he will. And he will call him “a great guy” who’s doing “a great job”. You betcha.

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