Majority of Egypt's lawmakers want president to run again

FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2016 file photo provided by Egypt's state news agency MENA, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, addresses parliament in Cairo, Egypt. More than 500 of Egypt's 596 lawmakers have signed "recommendations" for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to run for a second, four-year term in this year's elections. El-Sissi has not announced his candidacy, but he is virtually certain to contest, and win, the March vote. (MENA via AP, File)

CAIRO — More than 500 of Egypt's 596 lawmakers have signed "recommendations" supporting a re-election bid by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, even before he has formally announced his candidacy, according to news reports published Thursday.

El-Sissi is considered virtually certain to run in the March 26-28 election and to win a second four-year term. So far, no candidate who can pose a serious challenge to the general-turned-president has emerged.

One prominent potential candidate announced last week he wouldn't enter the race; two others have faced prosecution in the courts. Most opposition figures are either in jail, living abroad or staying on the sidelines after a general crackdown on dissent since el-Sissi led the military's 2013 ouster of an Islamist president.

Under the constitution, to qualify to run, any would-be candidate must gather formal recommendations from at least 20 elected members of parliament, or alternatively 25,000 recommendations from voters, with a minimum of 1,000 each in 15 of Egypt's 29 provinces. Rather than waiting for el-Sissi to seek recommendations, the lawmakers rushed to offer them first.

"Parliament achieves a record number in supporting el-Siss," ran the top headline in the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. A photo showed smiling lawmakers standing in a half circle with copies of their recommendations in hand. The Egyptian parliament is packed with el-Sissi supporters and has since its election acted more like a rubber-stamp chamber.

Hundreds of advertisements have been put up across Cairo imploring el-Sissi to run. "So you can build it," is the catch phrase of one such campaigns, alluding to the president's focus on overhauling Egypt's infrastructure and his ambitious program to overhaul the battered economy and build mega projects.

El-Sissi has said he will announce his candidacy after receiving feedback on his track record since taking office. He did not elaborate, but his office this week invited Egyptians to submit questions online for him to answer on live television. That would be the third time that el-Sissi appears in person on "Ask The President," a televised Q&A session where he fields questions selected from among thousands of submissions.

Since 2013, el-Sissi has led a heavy crackdown that has jailed thousands of opponents, mainly Islamists but also a number of prominent secular activists, including many of those behind the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Street protests are banned; human rights groups have been placed under draconian restrictions, and several rights campaigners have been banned from foreign travel or had their assets frozen. Many critics in the media have been silenced.

The absence so far of strong candidates to run against him makes turnout key for the credibility of el-Sissi's re-election. Critics have said the vote appears headed to something more akin to the one-candidate referendums that, for most of the past decades, confirmed the president, often by gigantic margins as high as 99 percent.

"We are back to the presidential elections that the president contests without having to campaign, announce an election program or address electoral rallies or even declare his intention to run and then win with a landslide," commentator Ashraf el-Barbary wrote on the website of the Al-Shorouk newspaper.

Sarcastically, he added: "Egypt today is experiencing an ideal election climate that is the envy of the world because we have an election that has a respectable commission and potential candidates, but it has no competition, no programs and may also end up without voters."

Already, Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister and ex-air force general who finished a close second behind the Islamist Mohammed Morsi in the 2012 election, decided not to run against el-Sissi. Another hopeful, Army Col. Ahmed Konsowa, was court martialed and sentenced to six years in prison for breaching military regulations prohibiting political activism.

Another hopeful, prominent rights campaigner Khaled Ali, would not be eligible to run if he loses his appeal against a conviction last September on charges of making an obscene gesture in public. Mohammed Anwar Sadat, an opposition politician who was thrown out of parliament last year, says he intends to run but complains of harassment by security agencies.

Analyst Ahmed Abd Rabou, also a political science lecturer, predicts that candidates will likely be placed under a "multitude of restrictions" or may not be allowed to contest the vote at all, leaving the president either running solo or against a "puppet" candidate.

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