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Africa News of Saturday, 20 March 2021


Egypt’s Ahmed Tantawi: The last major opposition leader standing up to Sisi

In a country that loves its political talk shows, Ahmed Tantawi is known to Egyptians who have regularly seen him on such programmes to discuss political reforms.

But having become increasingly critical of the regime, he is no longer invited to those shows, but instead is solicited by foreign media, such as the BBC and France 24.

Born in the Nile delta city of Mansoura, the father of three graduated from the University of Mansoura with a master’s in political science. A member of the Journalists’ Syndicate, he worked as a journalist and was editor-in-chief of the political section for the Al Karama newspaper, which is published by the political party he now heads.

He has not hidden his Nasserist leanings – supporting the ideas of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president at independence in 1952 – and was one of the founding members of the Egyptian Popular Movement: a secular group created after the election of President Mohammed Morsi, who in 2013 represented the political party of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Central to the movement is the principle that neither religion nor military leaders should interfere in politics, and that all sexual orientations and religions should be defended.

In 2015, at 35 years of age, Tantawi was elected to parliament as a member of an alliance of independents co-founded by the son of Nasser, Abdel-Hakim Abdel Nasser. Called the 25-30 Alliance, it was created in honour of the 25 January 2011 revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and the 30 June 2013 coup d’état that overthrew Morsi. The alliance fielded candidates in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Tantawi participated in both the 25 January 2011 revolution and the 30 June 2013 uprising.

Outspoken critic of Sisi

During an interview with France 24, Tantawi said he had begun to question the famous chant of the 25 January revolution: “The people want the downfall of the system.” He said: “We always knew we wanted to remove the regime. That was the easy part because everyone agreed on that. The difficult part was what to do after the regime is removed. I wish I had chanted ‘The people want to build a new system’.”

Former field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is now president, and he continues to reduce the space for independent voices.

Tantawi has been an outspoken critic of the regime on many occasions:

State sovereignty: Tantawi criticised ceding Egyptian sovereignty over the strategic islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. On 24 June 2017, Sisi ratified a border demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia, after an approval of the accord was passed by parliament. During a parliamentary session, Tantawi had reportedly hurled insults at the head of Egyptian Geographical Society and was referred to parliament’s ethics committee.

Freedom of the press: Tantawi called on President Sisi to pardon all imprisoned journalists and political prisoners who were not involved in crime, had not committed acts of violence and had not stolen citizens’ money.

Extension of the president’s mandate: In November 2019, Tantawi posted a YouTube video of himself with the Nile flowing in the background, in which he proposed that Sisi step down in 2022, rather than in 2024 as defined in the 2019 constitutional amendment. He spoke of “an imminent danger” for democracy if Sisi extended his mandate.

With nearly one million followers on his Facebook page and thousands of daily engagements on his posts, Tantawi has shown himself to be a popular figure in Egyptian politics. Following the release of his YouTube video, he was referred to the parliament’s values committee.

That referral may have contributed to him losing his place as a member of parliament during the October and November parliamentary elections in 2020. He ran for the first department of the Kafr el-Sheikh governorate located in Egypt’s lower Nile Delta.

Political immunity

After losing the election, Tantawi was voted head of the Dignity Party. It was established in 1996 and is considered to be left-wing and Nasserist. It is also known as the party of Hamdeen Sabahi, a former presidential candidate who once ran against Sisi.

The party is primarily known for supporting anti-Zionist policies and refusing any cooperation with the Israeli state. Its Nasserist roots means it is also has strong socialist leanings and is a big supporter of pan-Arabism, a term coined by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Following the elections, the largest coalition in parliament is the Nation’s Future party, which holds 55% of the seats (316 out of 596). Trailing just behind is the Republican People’s Party, which has 50 seats. Both are staunch supporters of President Sisi.

Tantawi and other independents who ran in the 2020 polls lost their places to the Nation’s Future party.

According to Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) NGO, Tantawi’s election as head of the Dignity Party could serve as protection in the future, since by losing his place as a member of parliament (MP), he lost political immunity.

Lotfy says: “When we look at the profiles of opposition politicians arrested in the past few years, most of them are former MPs or deputy heads of parties. Heads of parties are often kept for negotiations of the hostages. This is a mentality of bargaining.” Lotfy stresses that despite his new position, Tantawi is still at risk of getting arrested, like any other critic of the regime.

Some of the detained politicians include members of the Coalition of Hope. It is “a political alliance of current and former parliamentarians, party leaders, journalists, business people, labour leaders, and youth leaders who were seeking to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections,” explains Michele Dunn in a report for the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The detained politicians include:

former MP Ziad Al-Alimi

journalist Hisham Fouad

Multiples Group investment firm founder Omar El-Shenety

former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi

and campaign manager and journalist Hossam Moanis.

Ahmed Mefreh, director of the Committee for Justice, Switzerland-based independent association for the defence of human rights, says the common factor uniting these detainees is their faith in the 25 January 2011 revolution and the demands of protesters for ‘bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity’.

“Ziad Al-Alimi is being held because of the regime’s violation of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to build a real opposition to the Egyptian regime. The Hope Alliance [Coalition of Hope] was aimed at creating a real voice opposing the regime in order to be a voice for the rights and dignity of society,” says Mefreh.

Abuse of human rights

Sisi’s Egypt has been under fire for its abuse of human rights, and its widespread crackdown on critics and dissidents ranging from journalists, politicians to human rights workers, lawyers and researchers. There is no independent oversight of prisons, and the total number of prisoners has not yet been released by the state.

President Sisi denies the existence of any political prisoners in the country. But the latest estimate from rights groups in Egypt – which was nearly four years ago – was a minimum of 60,000 political prisoners. That number is certainly much higher today.

According to Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the regime is paranoid about opposition but only has clear levers of control over formal political opposition.

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