Rights group: Egypt's new laws entrench el-Sissi's rule

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s president has approved new legal amendments that further exclude any serious competitors from elections and give the military greater control over civilian affairs, a leading rights group said on Thursday.

The amendments, published earlier this week in the country’s official gazette, bar retired military officers from running for presidential, parliamentary or local elections without permission from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Current military officers had already been prohibited from running in elections or joining political groups. The amendments also empower the minister of defense to appoint military advisors to governors in Egypt’s 27 provinces.

“This is clearly a move by (President Abdel Fattah) el-Sissi and his government to restrict the kind of opponents they or their allies would face in any elections,” Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher, told The Associated Press. “In other cases we have seen more direct repression, like handing down convictions that bar candidates from running over a number of years.”

The government denies allegations that the law aims to further stamp out opposition. The amendment says it’s “necessary to put controls on military personnel after the end of their service, especially regarding their right to share information entrusted to them during their tenure.”

El-Sissi's approval of the laws comes just weeks after Egypt announced it will hold Senate elections in August for the first time since the dissolution of Parliament's lower chamber in 2014, training a spotlight on government management of popular votes.

El-Sissi has sought to stifle nearly all criticism since coming to power in 2013. As defense minister he led the military’s removal of the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, amid nationwide protests against his rule.

In the years since, security forces have jailed Islamist political opponents, journalists and secular activists, including many of those behind the 2011 uprising. Critics are frequently detained on dubious charges of supporting the Brotherhood — now banned as a terrorist organization.

Prominent retired army generals, who command respect from the government and Egyptian public, have proved more difficult to crush. Still, the two army officers who sought to challenge el-Sissi in the 2018 presidential election were pushed out of the race.

Former chief-of-staff Sami Annan was arrested shortly after he announced his intention to run. Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force general who nearly won the country’s first democratic election in 2012, withdrew his bid under murky circumstances. El-Sissi won re-election with 97% of the vote.

“The government wants to prevent what happened with Anan and Shafik from happening again,” said Baoumi. “Those kinds of arrests are more costly politically, it's bad publicity, they can’t just convict former high-ranking officers of terrorism.”

Egypt’s House of Representatives, which is packed with supporters of el-Sissi, first approved the draft law in early July.

The appointment of military advisors to each governor nationwide comes as the Egyptian military seeks to further enshrine its dominance over key aspects of civilian administration and economy, added Baoumi.

The Egyptian military supervises massive infrastructural projects and has built a vast economic empire that includes food, mineral water and land reclamation companies.

The amendment says that scores of new military advisors will be tasked with conducting field visits, representing the defense ministry and “following up” on the provision of public services to achieve “development goals” in each province.