Preparing for the worst, Egypt ramps up security for election day

“As presidential elections approach, it is more than likely thatEgypt will continue to see attacks,” said David Barnett, analyst at the U.S.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in anticipation of rising violence by extremist groups opposed to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood and the candidacy of former Defense Minister and Army Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Barnett’s predictions started materializing when three Egyptian soldiers were killed in a drive-by shooting on May 20, one day after the conclusion of overseas voting, in which Sisi scored a 94 percent victory. With the number of Egyptian police and army personnel killed by militiamen reaching at least 500 since the toppling of Mursi and with homeland elections, scheduled for May 26 and 27, going on, fears of intensified attacks are growing and so are the state’s precautionary measures to counter them.

Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim had announced on May 4 that the ministry has prepared a comprehensive plan in coordination with the army to secure the electoral process. ” I promise the people that we will pass this critical stage until the elections are safely completed,” he said in a press conference. “All that I ask of them is to report anything suspicious even if it proves unreal in the end.” While reassuring voters, Ibrahim noted the practical impossibility of installing surveillance cameras in every street. “We don’t have that kind oftechnology but we will do our best.” It was not until the last attack took place, however, that the ministry started giving more details. Deputy Interior Minister General al-Shafei Abu Amer announced on May 21 that “deterrent forces” from the army will start deploying around polling stations two days before the start of the elections. “Those forces are used for the first time for immediate intervention in emergency situations,” he said in a press interview. “They will be especially stationed in restive areas where groups that aim to destabilize security and undermine the democratic process are influential.” The army, Abu Ameradded, will provide explosives experts and advanced equipment that detects bombs from a distance and allow immediate action. “All forces will be in contact with operation rooms that will be run by police and army leaderships.”

Ready for all sorts of scenarios

On May 25, Abu Amer said the ministry is ready for all sorts of scenarios including the worst, by which he meant violence and bombings that aim at stopping the elections. “Other than that, our general plan includes securing not only all polling stations but all the streets surrounding them and different routes voters are expected to take on their way in and out,” he said in a press interview. “This is a big challenge that we have to face.” Interior Ministry official spokesman Hani Abdul Latif said that police checkpoints points will be present in streets and highways across the country and security will be tightened in areas surrounding strategic facilities like police stations and prisons. AbdelLatif echoed Abu Amer’s statement about the ministry’s readiness for different scenarios while giving more details on what these scenarios are expected to be like. “We are ready for riots like those practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood during their protests, terrorist operations like detonations and booby-trapped cars, and direct attacks on polling stations,” he said in a press interview. “I am warning all those who dare think of disrupting the elections and I am telling them that they will only have themselves to blame.” The Egyptian Air Forces will take part in monitoring the elections through taking aerial pictures of the polling stations and sending them to the main operations room as well as serving as ambulances in cases of violent clashes and emergency situations. Air Forces planes will also transfer more than 1,100 judges in charge of monitoring the elections to the polling stations to which they were assigned in remote areas across the country. On the regional level, a delegation from the Egyptian Interior Ministry received 15 armored vehicles from the United Arab Emirates to help in securing the electoral process and countering any possible attacks. “This step comes against the backdrop of escalating terrorist attacks that targeted Egyptian forces since the ouster of Mohammad Mursi and in anticipation of more attempts to disrupt the presidential elections,” wrote journalist Mahmoud Sabri on the news website

The minister of communications and information technology said that 2,000 digital readers will be used in the upcoming elections to identify eligible voters. “Those readers were used before in proxies for potential presidential candidates and changing voters’ addresses as well as in oversees voting,” he told Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency (MENA). The Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), affiliated with the Egyptian Cabinet, will form a central operations room fully equipped to be in contact with another subsidiary 27 operations rooms throughout the country. “The operations room will also be connected to several ministries like defense, interior, health, and local development as well as other relevant bodies like the Ambulance Authority,” said IDSC chairman Sherif Badr. “Our role in monitoring the elections is part of the state’s effort to facilitate the process and deal with any upcoming obstacles.” According to MENA, official representatives of Egypt’s governorates met on May 24 to confirm that all preparations for the elections have been completed with special focus on services that ensure the smooth progress of the voting process like electricity and the installation of generators in areas where blackouts are frequent in addition to ensuring easy communication among polling stations. Minister of Local and Administrative Development AdelLabib confirmed the readiness of all governorates to carry out the elections. “All the polling stations are now ready,” he said in a statement. “Everyone is on duty and officials in each governorate will pass by the polling stations to ensure the process is going on smoothly.” Labib added that all details have been taken care of, including the availability of enough chairs for senior citizens. The Ministry of Health declared a state of alert as it readied itself for possible injuries in case of attacks and/or clashes. ” The Crisis Management Committee will be working nonstop throughout the two days,” said Health Minister Adel Adawi during the meeting he held with members of the committee to oversee the final preparations for elections.

“Ministry officials will be making tours in hospitals to make sure all the required equipment and medicine are available.” The ministry had announced earlier that all hospitals will be on alert to receive emergency cases and 2,500 ambulances will be made available throughout the country.

Anti-riot forces

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim surveyed the anti-riot forces that are to take place in securing the elections. “I have come to convey to you the gratitude of all the Egyptian people,” Mehleb addressed the officers. “Egypt appreciates all the sacrifices offered by police officers at this critical stage in order to keep it safe and fight terrorism,” Mehleb added. He further added that he is sure that the police and the army will together be able to secure the elections and Ibrahim seconded his opinion as he praised the role of the police in “protecting the people and the land.”

A large number of non-state bodies are also getting ready for securing the elections, though in a different manner. The Journalists’ Syndicate announced forming its own operations room to monitor the elections and to receive instant reportsfrom field journalists as well as any complaints in case they are subjected to harassment or violence while doing their job. Several rights organizations declared a state of emergency as they prepared to detect any violations. More than 6,500 monitor from 38 organizations that obtained monitoring permissions are preparing to spread across polling stations after receiving training by the National Council for Human Rights. The council also formed an operations room to monitor the elections under the leadership of deputy chairman AbdelGhafar Shokr. “The operations room will receive complaints and violation reports from voters and representatives from both presidential campaigns” said the council chairman Mohammad Fayek. “Its members will also meet with delegations from different local and international organizations that will take part in monitoring the elections so that the council can make sure their job is done smoothly.” The Network for the Protection of Egyptian Children formed a team that will be in charge of detecting the use of children in any form of campaigning or violence or for any political purposes during the two days of the elections.” After the results are out, we will report all the problems we traced to the president elect and present to him our vision for the future of Egyptian children,” said a statement issued by the network.

Logistical obstacles

The Ibn Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies focused on logistical obstacles that might be facing a sizable portion of voters. Dalia Ziyada, the center’s executive manager, called upon the Higher Elections Committee to solve the problem of Egyptians living outside their hometowns. “Egyptians living far from the governorates in which they are registered are required by the Higher Elections Committee to register at their governorates of residence if they want to vote there,” she said in a press interview. “The problem is that many of them did not register and are unable to go back to their hometowns.” Ziyada demanded that the committee allows those voters to register at the polling station or online. The center, Ziyada added, will contribute to the monitoring process with 3,500 monitors.

The European Observation Mission (EOM), affiliated to the European Union, announced it will take part in monitoring Egyptian presidential elections after an impasse caused by the confiscation of its telecommunication equipment and medical kits by Egyptian authorities was finally resolved. The confiscation had led the mission to earlier announce it was unable to monitor the elections and would only send a team to evaluate the electoral process, yet the situation changed after Egyptian customs released the equipment. “Our equipment has been released from customs,” announced European Parliament member and chief of observers Mario David “EOM is able to continue to observe the presidential election in Egypt as widely as possible throughout the country.” David, however, mad sure to stress that monitoring the elections does not in any way reflect the EU’s political views on the elections, but will only monitor the process. “The EOM neither legitimatizes the elections nor validates the results,” he said in a press conference.

Sisi’s electoral interviews: Was he a man or a marshal?

On May 5 and 6, former army chief and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made his first TV appearance after officially announcing his intention to run for president. The lengthy interview, in which the man who toppled former President Muhammad Mursi spoke of his electoral platform, has been the subject of much analysis in the Egyptian media.

The focus has not been on the retired Field Marshal’s manifesto as much as his attitude. Commentators laid more emphasis on analyzing his character through his answers and reactions, as well as predicting the interview’s impact on the results of the elections, to be held on May 26 and 27.

They paid attention to how far his conduct during the interview would be indicative of his presidency if he is elected, in particular to what extent he would be democratic and tolerant of dissent.

While a sizable portion of analysts seem to see Sisi as another dictator who would crush opposition and curb freedoms, others consider his firmness as a much-needed advantage. In both cases, little is said about what he actually has to offer if he becomes president.

Journalist Wael Eskander was one of the first to comment on the interview in his article “Sisi in the hot seat: reading between the lines,” published on May 7 by the Atlantic Council.

While saying Sisi “came out a hero” when he talked about the ouster of Mursi and complying with the will of the Egyptian people, Eskander added that he was not able to handle many of the discussion topics, either by not giving direct answers, or avoiding some issues altogether.

“Even though he was only pressed lightly, there was an air of impatience in his tone and mannerisms,” wrote Eskander. “At one point he rebuked the presenters saying, ‘Do you want to listen or do you want to talk?’” According to the journalist, Sisi offered nothing new because he was addressing his “fan base,” rather than attempting to gain more supporters.

“As he tries to build on past popularity, he must realize he will have to offer something new if his popularity is to be sustained,” wrote Eskander. “His answers indicated that the height of his ambitions is to restore order through existing institutions, keep the Muslim Brotherhood at bay and keep the country afloat.”

Eskander’s views are shared by many commentators whose apprehensions about Sisi’s possible ascension to power have intensified following the interview. For writer Fahmi Howeidi, there were two major concerns. First, Sisi maintained a military tone that contradicted the fact that is he a civilian presidential candidate.

“The general in him was much more present than the presidential candidate,” Howeidi wrote in his article “Idealizing the president of Egypt.” Sisi “might have taken off his military uniform and put on a civilian suit, but this was only a matter of appearance… 45 years of military service cannot be wiped out in a few months.”

Secondly, while sounding strict domestically, Sisi seemed very conciliatory towards countries currently seen as adversaries, such as Qatar and Turkey, and others that are viewed as enemies, such as Israel.

“This lenient tone… became very firm and unyielding when he talked about democracy, protests, and political Islam and when he rejected any form of dialogue with factions he stated clearly would have no place during his rule,” wrote Howeidi.

Military tone

Tamer Abu Arab seconded Howeidi’s opinion regarding Sisi’s military tone. “I won’t allow you to say the word ‘junta’ again,” said Sisi during the interview, adding that the Egyptian army should be referred to as “the military institution.” Abu Arab says this gives an insight into the type of president Sisi will be if he wins the elections.

“Now he is – supposedly – a civilian candidate who has not become president yet and has not yet possessed any tools of power, yet he says to a prominent anchor, who is also one of his supporters, ‘I will not allow you’,” wrote Abu Arab. “Just imagine what he would do to a humble member of the opposition when he becomes president and all state institutions come under his control.”

He attributes Sisi’s attitude to his army background, and says military leaders in general do not believe in the power of the people. “We don’t have one example of a military leader who respected the people or shared power with them,” wrote Abu Arab. “He might sympathize with the people or work on making their living standards better… but he would do that in a patriarchal, condescending manner.”

Khaled al-Balshi, in his article “I am the awaited dictator: a reading of Sisi’s interview,” warns of the establishment of an autocratic regime if he becomes president. According to Balshi, Sisi made it clear throughout the interview that he does not like to be opposed, with statements including “I won’t allow the Muslim Brotherhood to exist during my rule,” and “I won’t allow protests to jeopardize national security.”

Balshi added that Sisi “said he consulted his family, but said that when it comes to the country he does not pay attention to family concerns. He wanted to make it clear that he has the final say even if he consults his family. He is the man of the house.”

Sisi displayed the same attitude, Balshi wrote, when asked whether he took the army’s permission. “He said it clearly and more than once: ‘The army chief notifies and does not obtain permission’.”

For Balshi, like Eskander, Sisi was only speaking to his supporters. “He was not concerned at all with addressing his critics. To me he looked like he only cared about keeping his already existing supporters while totally ignoring all the others.” Balshi added that those “others” constitute a sizable portion of Egyptians who demand real democracy and more freedoms.

Blaming the interviewers

Other critics of the interview shifted the blame to the TV presenters. Journalist Ahmed al-Saeidi lists 50 questions about security, society, politics, diplomacy, economics and the environment that should have been asked but were not.

“Sisi said it hurts him to see Egyptian women insulted. What about virginity tests conducted while he was head of military intelligence?” asked Saeidi. “What would he do as president that he was unable to do as minister of defense and vice president for security? Why were most Jihadists released… while he was head of military intelligence?”

Egyptian director Mohamed Khan accused the interviewers of siding with Sisi or being “too soft on him.” However, writer Mohamed Habib saw the interview as an important step towards establishing a closer relationship between Sisi and the Egyptian people. He said the interview revealed Sisi’s human side, as well as a strong personality, determination and firmness.

“His tone became angry when he talked about threats to national security, terrorism, and the return of the Muslim Brotherhood. The spirit of the army with all its history, victories, and dignity was very present at that moment,” Habib wrote.

He praised Sisi’s approach to the Palestinian cause: “He said he is committed to the peace treaty [with Israel] but will not be able to receive the Israeli prime minister or visit Israel until a Palestinian state is established with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Habib did not see a problem in Sisi scolding the interviewers for not listening. “I agreed with Sisi when he told presenters that he is the one who is supposed to talk. Most presenters ruin interviews through interrupting their guests unnecessarily which makes the audience unable to follow.”

Abdullah al-Mughazi, spokesman for Sisi’s presidential campaign, refuted claims that the interview did not contain anything new. According to Mughazi, Sisi talked about several main points in his electoral program, including projects concerning the Suez Canal, the development of the Sinai Peninsula, and the re-mapping of Egypt’s administrative divisions. “These are all projects that were very well-studied,” the spokesman said.

This interview, and others to follow, will be the means by which Sisi’s program is made public, Mughazi added. “Sisi’s electoral program won’t be printed, but will reach the people through a series of interviews since interaction is always more effective,” he said. Mursi “had a printed program that contained big dreams, none of which came true. Sisi, on the other hand, is a man of action.”

April 6: Egypt’s latest outlawed group

“An open invitation to an outlawed assembly” is the name the April 6 Youth Movement gave to the protest it held on April 30 against the controversial court ruling that banned the group’s activities and ordered the closure of all its offices. The April 28 verdict was issued by the Court for Urgent Matters in response to a lawsuit filed by Egyptian lawyer Ashraf Saeid, who accused the group of espionage and defamation of Egypt’s image.

“We’re gathering here today to declare that the ban is of no value to us,” said Amr Ali, April 6 coordinator from the protest in downtown Cairo. “No judge has the right to ban a group with the history and influence of April 6 in 24 hours.” Such verdicts, Ali added, have become a tool used by the state to crush opposition since the June 30 protests that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood and brought the military back to power.

Ali was reiterating the main points in a statement issued by the movement after the ban. It said April 6 was not only a movement, but also “an idea,” and so cannot be outlawed. It pledged to continue its activism as part of its belief in “freedom of expression as a basic human right granted by the constitution as long as it is done peacefully.” The state “has become so fragile that the chants of protestors would defame its image.”

Al-Dostour party said in a statement: “The April 6 ban constitutes a serious threat to democratic progress and a violation of the principles of the January 25 and June 30 revolutions.” The rule of law, the statement argued, is being compromised through levelling unfounded accusations. “Where did these charges come from? What is the evidence that April 6 is guilty of such grave crimes?”

The Free Egyptian Party posed the same questions, and demanded a detailed public account of the legal bases on which the verdict was issued. “We are extremely concerned that such rulings are only motivated by political animosities,” said the party’s statement. “In this case, being silent about it would constitute a political and ethical crime, especially that in the future all is bound to suffer the same fate.”

Ziad al-Eleimi, former MP and member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, wrote: “How could you ban a group that is not a legal entity to start with? And how are they going to closethe ‘offices’ of April 6? Will they close all the coffee houses in downtown Cairo?”

For leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, the April 6 ban is detrimental to freedom of expression. “The verdict is in violation of the entire chapter on freedoms in the constitution that was approved by the Egyptian people,” he said. Sabahi’s presidential campaign issued a statement warning of the potential return of “the state of repression, banning, and confiscation,” and of undermining the goals of the revolution.

“The campaign is against the April 6 ban not only because restriction of freedom of expression is a characteristic of non-democratic regimes, but also because it is likely to bring about violence and extremism,” said the statement. “We do respect the independence of the judiciary, but we would never accept its politicization.”

The Revolution Path Front declared its solidarity with April 6, whose members it described as “partners in the struggle for freedom.” The front said Egyptian revolutionaries would never give up their right to protest until the goals of the Jan. 25 revolution are reached.

“We will keep fighting and will not be hampered by laws that have nothing to do with the law,” it said in a statement, referring to the new protest law under which founding members of April 6, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel, are serving three-year jail sentences.
The April 6 ban, the statement added, is part of a series of verdicts that prove the damage that has befallen the judiciary. “This is, in fact, the same damage that can been seen all over state institutions at the moment.”

For the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist organization by the state, the April 6 ban places the two groups in the same position. “Welcome to the camp of the outlawed,” said Brotherhood leading member Gamal Abdel Sattar, addressing April 6.

Support for the ban

Activist and former MP Hamdi al-Fakharani said: “Banning the activities of April 6 was a matter of national urgency. Several of the movement’s leaders maintained suspicious ties with foreign entities that worked on undermining Egypt’s security.” The ban should be applied to any group that operates outside the law and outside state control, he added. “Those groups infiltrate Egyptian society in order to inflict harm upon it.”

Mohamed Abu Hamed, former MP and current leader of Al-Sisi Supporters Movement, which campaigns for presidential candidate and former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, described the ban as “patriotic,” citing the movement’s alleged role in threatening national security.

“Banning illegal and suspicious groups is necessary to protect Egypt and its people, and to prevent those groups from recruiting Egyptian youths for foreign organizations.” Abu Hamed urged the Foreign Ministry to issue a “strong-worded” statement rejecting any interference in Egypt’s affairs and court rulings, referring to international condemnation of the ban especially by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

Tarek al-Kholi, a former April 6 member who is currently part of Sisi’s presidential campaign, attributed the court ruling to a series of mistakes committed by the group, which had cost it popularity. “This ban was imposed by the people before the court,” he said.