Egyptians began voting on Monday in a presidential election that guarantees victory to incumbent President Abdel Fattah el Sisi. Here are five things you should know about life in Egypt under his rule since 2013.

Sisi, who appears to see the vote more as a referendum on his rule than a serious democratic contest, has urged Egyptians to vote, hoping a large turnout will give him a mandate to repair the economy, crush those opposing him and revive Egypt's diminished regional clout.
Sisi, who appears to see the vote more as a referendum on his rule than a serious democratic contest, has urged Egyptians to vote, hoping a large turnout will give him a mandate to repair the economy, crush those opposing him and revive Egypt's diminished regional clout. (Reuters)

Seven years after the first uprisings that saw the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are heading to the polls again. Incumbent President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who initially came to power in a 2013 coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi, country’s first democratically elected president, is running virtually unopposed, after nearly all candidates withdrew due to intimidation and pressure or were arrested.

Sisi's sole challenger in the March 26-28 vote is Musa Mustafa Musa, a longtime Sisi supporter, widely dismissed as a dummy candidate; Musa's Ghad Party had actually endorsed Sisi for a second term before he emerged as a last-minute challenger.

Sisi's win is effectively guaranteed, but with an economic crisis, gruelling price hikes, severe social and civil repression, Sisi’s regime is also seen as one that is at least as authoritarian, if not more so than that of Mubarak’s.

Here are five things to know about Egypt under Sisi:

1. Economic woes

While there is little competition at the ballot box, economic discontent facing many Egyptians could prove a bigger political issue. 

Sisi's Egypt held elections in 2014 for the first time after the coup, and Sisi came to power with promises of economic improvement as well as increased security and stability. He introduced drastic economic reforms that were linked to a three-year $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that were promised to bring benefits to turmoil-hit Egypt. 

Some of the steps included the adoption of a value-added tax, energy subsidy cuts and floating the Egyptian currency. This move halved the value of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar, which severely affected people in the import-reliant country. The loan was approved by the IMF in November 2016. But instead of improvements, many Egyptians continue to struggle, or are even worse off

Since the currency move, the inflation rate has soared, reaching a high of 34.2 percent in July 2017.

Although overall employment dropped below 12 percent last year, a quarter of Egypt’s youth are jobless, according to the central statistics office.

Meanwhile, some 28 percent of Egyptians in a population of about 93 million people, now live under the poverty line, according to official figures. 

Despite soaring inflation and rising poverty, Sisi insists that his first term has seen an "unprecedented boom" and that he has been working on a series of mega projects, including the expansion of the Suez Canal, which ended in 2015. 

Sisi also plays down the scope of the military’s involvement in the economy, long a topic of speculation. The Egyptian military has been a key economic actor in Egypt since the 1950s. Although it has a hand in almost every sector, from infrastructure to food to real estate, its economic share is officially unknown. It's 1-2 percent, according to Sisi, but estimates go up to over 60 percent

The economic clout of the military had decreased slightly under Mubarak, who had started privatisation of several industries, leading some experts to speculate that it was among the reasons the Egyptian military stood by for the most part during the 2011 uprising that saw his removal from power. 

Analysts also say the current economic and other policies will increase movement towards militarisation of the government.

2. Suppression of civil and social liberties 

Under Sisi, Egyptians continue to experience increased suppression of rights, civil liberties, media and civil society. International human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International document the widespread arrest of political opponents – particularly against the Muslim Brotherhood – routine torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, among other issues. 

Early on during Sisi’s rule, Egyptian security forces and the army conducted what was called the worst state-organised mass killing of protesters in recent history by Human Rights Watch, systematically killing nearly 1,000 protesters who were opposing Morsi’s ouster in August 2013. 

According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, between the July 2013 coup and May 2014, at least 41,000 people were either arrested or charged, and over 25,000 more may have been arrested since 2015.

Other reports detail the widespread violation of the right to due process, including the use of mass trials, mass death sentences and extended pretrial detentions. This can also be seen in the use of military, rather than civilian courts: for the past few months, Egypt has executed several civilians who were sentenced in military courts.

An Amnesty International report shows how the Egyptian National Security Agency abducts, tortures and disappears people, including children, to “intimidate opponents and wipe out peaceful dissent.” Some torture tactics include beatings, electric shocks, rape and sexual abuse, use of stress positions, and more. Reports have also emerged of detainees dying during or soon after release from detention. 

Those who want to protest or question these policies or others are also severely limited. In 2013, the government passed a Protest Law that requires notification before protests for legality, which has been used extensively to block protests. Police violence is also used to break up protests, the number of which has decreased.

The Egyptian regime says the protests and assembly, including peaceful protests, pose a threat to national security, though rights organizations say it's another means of controlling and preventing dissent. 

A law passed in May 2017, targeted the 46,000 NGOs in the country. The government had been working for years on a new law regulating NGOs, which rights groups feared would be more restrictive than Mubarak-era rules, but the bill drafted by lawmakers was so restrictive even cabinet ministers objected.

Charities have long played an important role in feeding, clothing and providing healthcare and education in a country where millions live on less than $2 a day.

Human rights groups and activists say the law in effect bans their work and makes it harder for charities to operate.

The measure restricts NGO activity to developmental and social work and introduces jail terms of up to five years for non-compliance. The law also gives the government power to decide who can establish an NGO and for what purpose. It obliges groups to stick to the “state’s development plan”, severely restricting the work they can do in areas the government does not consider a priority.

Websites and news outlets that publish such information about Egypt are censored. In September, Cairo blocked access to the Human Rights Watch website after it released a report saying that there was systemic torture in the country’s jails.

Dozens of websites, including news sites like Al Jazeera, Huffington Post Arabic, Daily Sabah, as well as Egyptian sites like Mada Masr and Daily News Egypt were also blocked. The blocking of Al Borsa, a widely read financial newspaper that generally steers clear of politics and reflects the views of a largely pro-state business community, suggests a more expansive attempt to control private media coverage.

Anti-terrorism laws enacted in 2013 also limit the media in Egypt through its broad definition of terrorism. A 2015 law further punished media for disseminating "false reports" or reports that were not in line with official statements.

3. Changing regional politics

Increasing securitisation and militarisation of Egyptian policy goes hand in hand with Egypt’s transforming regional orientation, which has helped entrench Sisi’s power and position. In recent years, Egypt has engaged in military and security cooperation with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and even longtime regional enemy, Israel, all of which back the current military regime.

The 2013 military coup was welcomed by Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia, who viewed the rise of civilian movements and parties like the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab uprisings as threats to their dynastic rule. As such, Saudi Arabia and UAE were among the first countries to call the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation after such a designation in Egypt. 

It is important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood is backed by Qatar, which was the target of a region-wide boycott in June 2017 led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Egypt also was a part of the boycott.

This cooperation, including over Hamas and the Gaza Strip, is also in line with Saudi Arabia and Israel’s efforts to curb growing Iranian influence in the region.

“The main reason for this cooperation between Tel Aviv and Cairo is to keep the status quo in the region,” Numan Telci, a foreign policy researcher at the SETA Foundation, told TRT World. “What I mean with this is first, the continuation of the Egyptian military regime; second, eliminating threats toward the security of Israel; and third, promoting US interests in the region.”

“For these reasons, both countries aimed to reverse the course of the Arab revolutions. And the main allies for Egypt and Israel are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.”

The reverberations of such policies were felt in Egypt as well as the region. The New York Times revealed in February that the Israeli army had been carrying out covert air strikes on the Sinai peninsula, numbering more than 100 for more than two years, with the approval of the Egyptian government. Bloomberg also reported in 2016 that Israel had been conducting drone strikes in the Sinai for a few years, with Egypt’s permission.

When US President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, Cairo gave a statement countering such a policy, but a day after, leaked tapes revealed that Egyptian authorities had tacitly accepted the decision.

4. Growing dependency, ceding sovereignty

Egypt has a long history of receiving aid from foreign countries, the most well-known being the US; Washington supplies Cairo with nearly $1.3 billion in military aid and $200 million in economic assistance annually. Most recently, Egypt’s Gulf neighbours UAE and Saudi Arabia are using aid as a foreign policy tool to wield influence in the country. 

Soon after the 2013 coup, the UAE transferred $3 billion to Egypt, and Saudi Arabia offered $5 billion, including a $2 billion central bank deposit, $2 billion in energy products, and $1 billion in cash. As Egypt continues its suppression of civil society organisations, the more aid from the Gulf countries fill and reinforce the current structures in Egypt. 

By early 2015, Egypt had received  $23 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. 

While the deepening of cooperation through aid and financial investments is not something new, such relations have taken on a previously unseen form under Sisi, with Gulf countries having more say in what happens in the country.

The most visible of these was Cairo’s ceding of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, a move met with intense objections by Egyptians who saw this as a ceding of the sovereignty of Egyptian lands. 

But several events on a similar line took place with other countries. In 2016, Sisi issued an amendment to a law that forbade non-Egyptians from owning land in the Sinai peninsula so that Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa could have the same property rights as Egyptians with regards to the peninsula.

The UAE government is not only behind some of the mega-projects in Egypt, including the construction of the new administrative capital and the building of a $3 billion industrial city at the Suez canal along with Saudi Arabia, it also extracts gold and invests in solar energy projects in the region of Halaib, a resource-rich, strategic, and disputed area on the Sudanese-Egyptian border.

5. Women’s rights

Sisi declared 2017 as the “year of the Egyptian woman.” Although there have been some steps – such as the introduction of a sexual harassment law in 2014, following disturbing incidences of sexual harassment at Sisi’s inauguration – Egyptian women continue to face sexual harassment and other problems, which have been exacerbated by the economic conditions in the country. 

During the 2011 uprisings, the army subjected at least 18 women protesters to “virginity tests,” a move that was defended by Sisi, who said it was "to protect the girls from rape and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape." After the 2013 coup, women were also subjected to forced virginity and pregnancy tests after being detained at a rally organised by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian army had pledged to stop such practices in 2011. 

Following the coup, dozens of women from differing political views were also arrested for political reasons. 

In October 2017, the Thomson Reuters Foundation study ranked Cairo as the most dangerous megacity for women, with women’s rights experts saying the treatment of women in the Egyptian capital has worsened since the 2011 uprisings.

Women’s rights campaigners and commentators said women in Cairo faced daily harassment while a weakened economy and high unemployment since the uprising had eroded economic opportunities for women.

Campaigners said successive governments since the uprising had put violence against women on the backburner, with authorities failing to acknowledge the extent of the problem.

Data on violence against women in Cairo is hard to find but 99 percent of women in Egypt interviewed by the United Nations in 2013 reported sexual harassment and 47 percent of divorced or separated women reported domestic abuse.

Female participation in the workforce fell to 23 percent in 2016 from 26 percent in 1990, according to World Bank figures, while US figures show the literacy rate of women aged over 15 is about 65 percent, compared to 82 percent for men.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies