Cairo - Human Rights Watch sharply criticised Egyptian authorities on Monday for a series of "arbitrary" arrests of political opponents of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ahead of next month's presidential election, which the watchdog considers "unfair."
In a statement, HRW urged for the release of Abdel-Monaem Abul Fetouh, a 2012 presidential candidate and prominent Islamist detained earlier this month along with several party leaders and placed on a "terrorism list" that bans them from travel and freezes their assets over alleged links to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.
US-based HRW says the intensifying repression and the use of terrorism-related charges against peaceful activists reflect a government strategy to silence critical voices ahead of the election.
"Abul Fetouh's arrest underlines the government message that criticising President al-Sisi in the lead-up to the presidential elections is forbidden," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East and North Africa director. "Elections should stimulate political debate and reflect the popular will, but al-Sisi's government wants to ensure with its heavy-handed repression that this is not the case in Egypt."
Abul Fetouh, who leads the Strong Egypt party, was the latest in a string of prominent opposition figures arrested since January, including his deputy, el-Kassas, also detained over alleged links to the Brotherhood. A state security court also renewed Abul Fetouh's detention by 15 days on Monday.
Authorities have also arrested Mohamed Abdel-Latif Talaat, secretary-general of the centrist Al-Wasat Party, and Hesham Genena, once Egypt's top government auditor who had been an aide to former military chief of staff Sami Annan, who was arrested last month just days after he declared his intention to run for president. All remain in detention.
Authorities have engineered the March 26-28 election as a guaranteed win for al-Sisi, who now faces only an obscure politician who supports him as an adversary.
Other prominent attempts to run against him were made by former lawmaker Mohammed Anwar Sadat and rights lawyer Khaled Ali, who both withdrew claiming their campaigns had been harassed and targeted by security services. Former air force Ahmed Shafiq, who returned from self-exile to run, dropped out after authorities sequestered him and threaten corruption allegations. Little-known army Colonel Ahmed Konsowa declared his intention to run but was court-martialed for prohibited political activism and sentenced to six years in prison.