ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Egypt has set the date of presidential elections for March 26. Candidates will be able to register to run starting on Saturday, but there are high barriers for entering the race and trying to replace the incumbent, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. NPR's Jane Arraf reports that as candidates fall by the wayside, the fairness of the election is in doubt.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: It's always crowded in Cairo's streets. After all, 10 million people live here. But it's hard to generate much excitement about the upcoming elections. Part of that is the trauma of what this country has been through, like in Rabaa square, a large traffic circle where Egyptian security forces killed more than 800 demonstrators. You wouldn't know that now. There are no memorials to the civilian dead, and the square has been renamed after an Egyptian prosecutor. Instead, there's praise for Egypt's hard-line president.
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ARRAF: The streets are full of traffic. There are buses stopping here, sirens blaring and, strung between lamp posts, posters expressing support for President Sissi. They're not campaign posters because the campaign hasn't started yet. Registration hasn't even opened for candidates. But Sissi is definitely running. Sissi had been defense minister in 2013 under the elected Muslim Brotherhood president he helped overthrow. A year later, Sissi himself was elected president. You won't find a lot of candidates daring to run against him in these elections.
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MOHAMED ANWAR SADAT: (Through interpreter) The campaign is being held under emergency law, which restricts organizing peaceful meetings and demonstrations. So I am afraid that some of our young people could be accused of violations or detained.
ARRAF: That's Mohamed Anwar Sadat, the nephew of the late President Sadat, telling a press conference he's changed his mind and decided it's better not to run. Other potential presidential candidates have also complained they've been harassed or threatened with arrest. Under Sissi's rule, thousands of political prisoners have been arrested and hundreds of newspapers, websites and foreign-linked aid organizations shut down. The country's under emergency law renewed every three months. One person planning to enter the race is human rights lawyer Khaled Ali. He believes a lot of young people who want their voices heard would vote for him.
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KHALED ALI: (Through interpreter) We chose this path so no one would come and ask this generation, where were you when they were building a dictatorship, a dictatorship that can't stand an independent website or young men and women chanting the simplest of slogans?
ARRAF: Ali, though, is appealing a conviction of making an obscene gesture at a demonstration. And if he loses the appeal, he won't be allowed to run. And there are lots of other obstacles. To register as a candidate, you need to gather 25,000 signatures or support from 20 members of Parliament in just 10 days. More than 500 members of Parliament - almost all of them - have already rushed to declare their support for Sissi.
Sissi has big projects and big plans for Egypt, a lot of them involving the military. He wants to build a new capital outside Cairo and fight ISIS militants in the Sinai. He wants another term to work on those. He's expected to get it. Rivals don't seem to stand a chance. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Cairo.
(SOUNDBITE OF DREEMS AND JAGMA'S "WE SHALL BE FOUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.