Egypt’s president expected to secure third term as the world’s eyes are fixed on Gaza

Motorists drive past campaign billboards of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi along a street in Cairo on December 7, 2023, ahead of the country's presidential election. Egyptian citizens living abroad will cast early ballots on December 8 in a presidential election, in a vote all but certain to give incumbent Sisi a third term in office. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Motorists drive past campaign billboards of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi along a street in Cairo on December 7.Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to secure his third term in power in a Sunday presidential election that critics have called a sham, as global attention is focused on the bloody war in neighboring Gaza.

The 69-year-old president has enjoyed two months of a pause in criticism from Western allies over his authoritarian rule and heightened crackdown on dissent, experts say, attributing the shift to Sisi’s renewed diplomatic relevance on the international stage due to the Israel-Hamas war.

Several top Western officials have paid Sisi visits since the war began, including United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Palestinians cross to the Egyptian side of the border crossing with the Gaza Strip Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. in Rafah Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

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HA Hellyer, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in London, said that Cairo has historically been “a critical interlocutor for the international community in general when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

“As the Israeli-Palestinian question diminished in importance in many policy arenas, which was clearly a fundamentally flawed approach, so did Cairo’s geopolitical weight,” Hellyer told CNN, adding that with the Palestinian issue now prominently back in discussions, “there is a new prioritization internationally for good and comprehensive contact with Egypt.”

Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the sole remaining link between the Gaza Strip – which Hamas controls – and the outside world. Egyptian officials have played mediation roles in previous wars between Israel and Hamas, as Cairo maintains diplomatic ties with both sides. During the current conflict, Egypt’s good offices have been used to deliver crucial aid into Gaza and to help secure the release of some of the hostages held there by Hamas since its militants attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting more than 240 others.

Egypt has also helped foreign nationals escape the carnage in Gaza, along with injured Palestinians. More than 17,000 Palestinians have so far been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, which cites sources from the Hamas-controlled enclave. Aid has also been able to trickle into Gaza through Rafah.

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carry his posters during a march in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Egypt will hold a presidential election over three days in December, with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi highly likely to prolong his stay in power until 2030. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carry his posters during a march in Cairo, Egypt on October 2.Amr Nabil/AP

Meanwhile, Sisi is moving to quietly secure another presidential term with little to no opposition at home or abroad, critics say.

“There are no elections. There is electoral theater,” Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC, told CNN, citing the lack of viable opposition to Sisi.

The former field marshal rose to power in 2013 after overthrowing Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s only democratically elected president, in a military coup. Sisi ran for president in 2014 and 2018, winning both elections with a sweeping majority. In 2019, his government passed constitutional amendments that permitted him to run for a third term.

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“The terrible violence we’re witnessing (in Gaza) helped Sisi divide the attention of the public from their domestic concerns onto what’s happening, particularly the Palestinians in Gaza,” Kaldas said. “And as a result, somewhat reduce the level of focus on their own domestic plight, particularly their economic struggles.”

Egypt has also spent the past two months reminding its international partners of how “vitally important” it is, Kaldas said. Egypt can say: “See the useful role we play in negotiations and facilitation of the humanitarian assistance that needs to go to Gaza,” he added.

Sisi has appeared keen to capitalize on the crisis and present himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. In a speech last month, the president repeated his call for a ceasefire, as well as his refusal of the “displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip,” calling such a prospect a red line.

While diplomats have been focused on Gaza, critics and human rights groups have lambasted Egypt over the past two months for what they say is its suppression of political dissent and silencing of opposition candidates.

Ahmed el-Tantawy, a former member of parliament who belongs to the Civil Democratic Movement (CDM) and intends to become an opposition presidential candidate, speaks to the media during a press conference held by Egyptian opposition parties claiming that people trying to endorse candidates to stand against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in an election in December have been repeatedly obstructed from doing so, at headquarter of Conservative Party in Cairo, Egypt, October 13, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Ahmed el-Tantawy, a former member of parliament who tried to become an opposition presidential candidate, speaks to the media during a press conference held by Egyptian opposition parties in Cairo, Egypt on October 13.Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Former lawmaker Ahmed el-Tantawy, who was the most prominent potential challenger to Sisi before he ended his campaign in October, said his supporters were restricted from registering their endorsements for him. He ended his campaign after failing to register the number of signatures required to run.

The Egyptian National Elections Authority (NEA) denied el-Tantawy’s claims, according to state media.

Three other candidates are running for president, with little support expected for each. These are the head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Farid Zahran; Wafd party nominee Abdel Sanad Yamama; and Republican Peoples’ Party candidate Hazem Omar.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International said last month that “genuine opposition candidates (were) barred from running” in Sunday’s election, adding that since October 1, Egyptian authorities “have arrested and interrogated at least 196 individuals due to their participation in unauthorized protests, as well as on allegations of engaging in terrorism-related activities and spreading ‘false news.’”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a press conference with his Russian counterpart (unseen) following their talks at the presidential palace in the capital Cairo on December 11, 2017. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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Amnesty also criticized Egypt’s prosecution of el-Tantawy, along with members of his campaign, which the rights group says are under fire “in retaliation for exercising their rights to political participation and to freedom of expression and association.”

El-Tantawy is accused of circulating election-related papers without the permission of the authorities. His trial date was pushed to January 9.

“Once more, the Egyptian authorities lay bare their utter intolerance for even the faintest whisper of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, as he urged the country to lift “sweeping restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

The Egyptian government’s foreign press center did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

‘No one will come out to vote’

Just days before the election, streets in the capital, Cairo, were draped with large banners bearing Sisi’s portrait. An increased security presence is noticeable throughout the city, with officers and checkpoints dotting squares, highways and the entrances to bridges.

Among those boosting the pro-Sisi campaign is the Nation’s Future Party. “We are all with you” and “beloved of millions,” read the party’s pro-Sisi banners.

Despite the president’s high-profile election campaign, public sentiment is marked by frustration. Grievances regarding the economy are most evident.

Magdy Gerges, an Egyptian in his 50s who works as a driver, said economic hardships were painful, but that he feels a sense of security under Sisi’s rule.

“I’m one of those who suffer from the high prices, but this man (Sisi) gives me something more important than food; that I feel safe whenever my daughters go out,” Gerges told CNN. “By the end of the day, we will manage with our income, but what good is money if there is no security?” he said.

Egypt's president Abdul Fatah El-Sisi talks to the press after a meeting at the Palace in Cairo, part of a visit of both Belgian and Spanish Prime Ministers (incoming and outgoing presidency of Europe) to Egypt, in Cairo, Friday 24 November 2023. The two heads of government have visited Israel and Palestine yesterday, to hold talks with political leaders on the war in Gaza. In Egypt, Sanchez and De Croo will meet the Egyptian president and visit the border crossing to the Gaza strip in Rafah.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt on November 24.Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA MAG/AFP/Getty Images

Gerges noted however that there are no other viable alternative candidates for voters to choose from, especially given the region’s precarious security situation.

“Even if we want to choose someone else, we have no alternative,” he said.

Another citizen, who asked to remain anonymous fearing reprisal from Egyptian authorities, questioned the legitimacy of Sunday’s election, saying polling stations will be empty since Sisi’s victory is clear.

“No one will come out to vote. People know the result in advance, so why this farce?” the man told CNN, saying it might have been better to “save these huge sums of money in the difficult economic conditions we are living in.”

Hellyer, of the Carnegie Endowment, said that with the current crisis in Gaza, Cairo might even see “potential for substantial economic assistance” from foreign nations, given the role it has played.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sits next to United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and other UAE officials at the World Government Summit 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on February 13.

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Egypt has been struggling to dig itself out of a debt hole that experts say requires structural reforms to avert economic collapse. Cairo’s allies in the Persian Gulf, who for years bailed out the most populous Arab nation, had in recent months criticized Egypt, saying the days of blank cheques are now over.

Egypt’s economic woes are far from resolved. Inflation is still high, and a foreign currency crisis remains unremedied. The country is also yet to meet the terms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3 billion loan secured in December 2022 but which is yet to be disbursed.

Kaldas, of the Tahrir Institute, said that the Egyptian pound is expected to devalue further. The dollar now trades officially at 31 Egyptian pounds, and if the government decides to further devalue the exchange rate after the elections, that will translate to higher inflation, a deepening of economic hardship for individuals and businesses, and a rise in poverty, he said.

“There is no short-term scenario that doesn’t mean more economic pain for the average Egyptian,” Kaldas added.

The election takes place from December 10 to December 12. Results are expected by December 18.

Drunk astronomers, monsters and red underwear: New book explores the myth and folklore of eclipses

A partial solar eclipse rises behind clouds on June 10, 2021, in Arbutus, Maryland.

A partial solar eclipse rises behind clouds on June 10, 2021, in Arbutus, Maryland.Julio Cortez/APCNN — 

An ancient Chinese story tells of two court astronomers, Hsi and Ho, who got drunk and failed to predict an eclipse of the sun. This grave oversight led to them being executed, off-with-their-heads-style, by the Emperor Chung K’ang.

Set sometime between 2159 and 1948 BC, the legend is thought to be the oldest recorded reference to a solar eclipse — and it’s just one of the interesting cultural anecdotes recounted in a new book called “Totality: The Great North American Eclipse of 2024” that was coauthored by Mark Littman, journalism professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and Fred Espenak, retired astrophysicist emeritus at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“I find the mythology and folklore of eclipses fascinating,” Littman said in an email. “To see how people long ago and people today reacted to a total eclipse of the Sun, a sight so unexpected, so dramatic, so surprising in appearance, and so unnatural even though it is utterly natural.”

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A total solar eclipse is seen on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 above Madras, Oregon.

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Such enthusiasm and awe sets the tone for Littman and Espenak’s evocative book, which also explains the science behind eclipses and how to effectively photograph the upcoming total eclipse of the sun in April 2024 (Espenak is a well-known eclipse photographer who has witnessed more than 30 total solar eclipses). Additionally, the book includes tales from travelers who ventured to the United States from around the world to view the last total solar eclipse in 2017.

CNN spoke with Littman to learn more about how eclipses have been viewed throughout time, why it matters — and the reverence and superstition these celestial phenomena continue to evoke today.

This conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.

CNN: What do we know about the oldest known references in human history to eclipses? 

Mark Littman: The Chinese were recording eclipses on animal bones as early as 772 BC. By the first century BC, the Chinese had enough records that they realized there was a rhythm to eclipses and could use that rhythm to calculate accurately when a future eclipse would occur — even though most of the solar eclipses would not be visible from their location.

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What is a solar eclipse?

Similarly, from 750 BC on, the Babylonians recorded eclipses in their cuneiform writing on clay tablets.  By about 600 BC, the Babylonians noticed that eclipses were occurring at regular intervals, so they used that interval to predict when a future eclipse would take place. Their predictions were amazingly correct. Even today, if we add 18 years and 11⅓ days to the date of one eclipse, we will almost always find an eclipse of the same type occurring at the end of that period.

The Maya — living in Mexico and Central America as early as 2000 BC and flourishing from 250 to 900 AD — developed their own written language and recorded their astronomical observations in books. Alas, only four of those books survived the destruction of the Spanish conquest. One of them, the Dresden Codex, demonstrates that the Maya were able to predict eclipses of the sun by noticing the interval between their appearances.

Interestingly, the Chinese, the Babylonians and the Maya could predict eclipses but did not know what caused eclipses.

CNN: What are some of the most common myths cultures created to explain eclipses?

Littman: The mythology of eclipses most often involves a beast that tries to eat the sun for lunch. For the Chinese, that beast was a dragon or a dog. For Scandinavians, it was a wolf.

In India, a demon named Rahu lost his body when he tried to steal the nectar of immortality from the gods. But Rahu’s head lives on — and it is very angry. Whenever he can, Rahu chomps on and swallows the sun. But Rahu has no body, so the sun goes in his mouth and comes out his neck, returning brightness to the sky. Rahu never learns and continues pursuing and chewing the sun and moon, causing eclipses.

Not all cultures explained eclipses as a monster swallowing the sun or moon, however. Some peoples of northern South America said the sun and moon periodically fight one another, temporarily shutting off each other’s light.

Littman and Espenak's new book explores the myth, folklore and the science behind eclipses, as well as the most effective way to photograph these stunning natural phenomena.

Littman and Espenak’s new book explores the myth, folklore and the science behind eclipses, as well as the most effective way to photograph these stunning natural phenomena.Oxford University Press

But the violence of these stories was not always in the sky. Folklore from Transylvania (central Romania) says that from time to time the sun looks down on Earth and sees how vicious and corrupt human beings are. The sun turns away in disgust — and that’s a solar eclipse.

In at least one culture, eclipses were not acts of celestial or terrestrial violence at all. The Fon people of western Africa said that the male sun rules the day, and the female moon rules the night. They love each other, but they are so busy traversing the sky and providing light that they seldom get together. Yet when they do, they modestly turn off the light.

CNN: What modern day myths and superstitions still exist surrounding total eclipses? 

Littman: Myths from long ago show that most people thought eclipses were dangerous events, with Earth in peril of losing its light and warmth. Even in more modern times, if people don’t know what causes a total eclipse of the sun or when it will happen, the daytime disappearance of the sun evokes confusion and terror.

In 1918, 13-year-old Florence Andsager was playing with her brothers and sisters in the yard of their family’s farm in Kansas. In the middle of the day, the sky began to darken, even though the sky was clear. Their mother screamed for them to come into the house, and she, her husband and the kids huddled together. They thought the world was coming to an end. It was a total eclipse of the sun.

Balloon Fiesta Eclipse Thumb 2


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As recently as 2012, when an annular (not-quite-total “ring of fire”) eclipse of the sun was visible north of Sacramento, California, a pregnancy blog shared how some Hispanic mothers told their pregnant daughters that, in case of a solar eclipse, they should wear red underwear with a safety pin attached to it over their bellies to protect the fetus from birth defects. No red underwear? Any color underwear would do if the mother-to-be attached a red ribbon to it. The tradition also cautioned that pregnant women must not go outside during the eclipse.

CNN: How do the ancient traditions you’ve learned about regarding eclipses play into your personal experiences of seeing them today?

Littman: I keep asking myself: If I lived long ago, how would I react to a total eclipse of the sun if I didn’t know it was going to happen — and how would I go about trying to understand what I saw so I could pass that understanding on to others. I come away from that exercise with a greater appreciation of how ancient people coped with that experience.

Many of their stories told of some monster eating the sun, which is actually a very good description of what the partial phases of an eclipse look like. And such a description is hard to forget.

I’m amazed by the care and dedication of the ancient Babylonian, Chinese and Maya astronomers who observed and kept records of eclipses for generations even though their own lives would not be long enough to give them the answers they were seeking.

I’m in awe of the astronomer in each of those cultures who kept looking and looking at the records until, in an astounding flash of brilliance, that scientist discovered a rhythm in the eclipses, providing that culture with the ability to see into the future.

Terry Ward is freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.