Challenger more nuisance than threat for Egypt's Sisi


Cairo (AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, elected virtually unopposed in 2014, faces a high-profile challenger in next year's election, but the rival who lives in exile is seen more as an inconvenience.

Former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq announced his candidacy this week from the United Arab Emirates, saying Egypt was facing "many problems in all aspects of life".

Sisi, a former army chief whose election came less than a year after he overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, has not officially declared his candidacy.

But he looks all but certain to run in -- and dominate -- the election.

Shafiq, who narrowly lost to Morsi in 2012 presidential polls, is one of the few candidates who could come close to challenging Sisi, experts say.

"The government is afraid of any candidate but especially of Shafiq... who has much more political experience than Sisi himself had" before coming to power, said Hassan Nafaa, emeritus professor of political science at Cairo University.

A former aviation minister and airforce general, Shafiq was hastily appointed prime minister by Hosni Mubarak in 2011 before the longtime leader was ousted by a popular uprising.

Shafiq did not last long in the job after Mubarak's overthrow and in the presidential race held the following year finished close behind the winner, Morsi.

Shafiq, who left Egypt in 2012 for the UAE, was tried in absentia on corruption charges after his election defeat but was acquitted.

On Wednesday Shafiq accused the UAE of barring him from leaving the country, which the Gulf state denied.

On Friday, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in Rome he sees "no reason" why Shafiq should not run. "He is free to represent himself to the electorate."

- 'Campaign of denigration' -

Nafaa said Shafiq is feared by the government for his record as a serious presidential contender and one-time premier with links to the military.

But "with or without Shafiq, the elections will not be real", he added, because "the government wants Sisi to win a second term at any cost".

Pro-regime commentators immediately criticised the candidacy of Shafiq, who will have to wait until early next year to officially register for the election.

Lawmaker and TV show host Mostafa Bakry described him as the "candidate of (the revolutionary movement known as) April 6, revolutionary leftists... and the Muslim Brotherhood," Morsi's group which is outlawed in Egypt.

Shafiq's party has hit back with condemnation of what it called a "campaign of fierce denigration" since his election bid was announced.

The leftwing opposition has also distanced itself from the Mubarak-era premier.

"Shafiq will not present a policy radically different from the current regime," said Elham Eidarous, campaign chief for human rights lawyer and Sisi critic Khaled Ali who also plans to run for the presidency.

Elected in 2014 with 96.9 percent of the votes, Sisi said in early November that he did not intend to run for a third term in 2022 but left the door wide open to a re-election bid next year.

The challenge from Shafiq could force Sisi to plunge deeper into the political fray to defend his record.

- Nostalgia for Mubarak -

Criticised by human rights groups but popular with many Egyptians, Sisi's regime insists the priority is to fight terrorism and boost the economy -- pledges that were at the heart of his 2014 campaign.

During his tenure, Egypt has suffered numerous attacks against security forces and civilians.

Last month, militants killed more than 300 people in a gun and bomb assault at a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula in the country's deadliest attack in recent memory.

Egyptians are also suffering because of runaway inflation that soared above 30 percent earlier this year after authorities implemented drastic reforms to secure a multi-billion-dollar IMF loan.

Late last year the government floated the pound, which lost half its value against the dollar on currency markets, and raised fuel prices.

Against this backdrop, "several layers of public opinion consider that despite all its negative aspects the Mubarak regime was better," said Mostafa Kamal el-Sayed, professor of political science at Cairo University.

Under Mubarak, "there was more security in the country, the economy worked better ... and there was also more freedom of expression."

This "nostalgia for the Mubarak era" is an asset for Shafiq, he said.

But it was unlikely that pro-Mubarak groups would quit the Sisi camp and given the restricted political landscape Shafiq "will have difficulties in conducting a good election campaign," Sayed said.

Ashraf El Sherif, senior lecturer in political science at the American University in Cairo, was even more blunt.

"In the current political context, I do not see any possibility of genuine political competition," he said.