IS calls on fighters to disrupt Egypt's vote with attacks

CAIRO — A video purportedly by the Islamic State's affiliate in Egypt is calling on its fighters to stage attacks during next month's presidential elections and warning Egyptians to stay away from polling centers.

The authenticity of the 23-minute video posted late Sunday on websites known to be sympathetic to the group could not be independently verified, but appeared similar to past releases by IS. The video makes a brief mention of an ongoing offensive by security forces against IS, suggesting it was made after the campaign began Friday.

The video showed what appeared to be footage of past IS attacks in Sinai and the gruesome killings of unarmed off-duty soldiers or men suspected of collaborating with security forces. The timing of its release and its contents, however, appear designed to project an image of the group as a resilient force in the face of what is possibly the largest offensive by government forces since the insurgency began nearly five years ago.

Egypt's military says it has destroyed dozens of targets, killed scores of militants and detained many suspects as part of the operation, which targets "terrorist and criminal elements and organizations" and involves land, naval and air forces from the army and police. The operation covers north and central Sinai, the Nile Delta and the Western Desert along Egypt's porous border with Libya, home to a number of militant groups.

Branding elections an act of "apostasy," an IS operative speaking to the camera in the video called on the "soldiers" of the group to "spoil the day of their apostasy, shed their blood and target the heads of apostasy among them." He also called on Muslims in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt to stay away from polling centers and other vote-related installations, saying they would be targeted on the days of the election. The vote is staggered over three days — March 26, 27 and 28.

Such threats are routine from militant Islamic groups opposed in principle to democratic practices, or even a hollow version of them. They also rarely materialize.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's re-election is virtually assured in the March vote. After a string of potentially serious challengers have either been arrested or forced out of the race, el-Sissi's only challenger is an obscure politician who is also among his ardent supporters. Moussa Mustafa Moussa's last-minute entry into the race saved el-Sissi and his government from the embarrassment of a one-candidate election.

A coalition of eight opposition parties and scores of prominent pro-democracy figures called last month on voters to boycott the elections. This week, prosecutors began an investigation into complaints by pro-government lawyers accusing them of "incitement against the state" and seeking to destabilize the country.

The move by the prosecutors was the latest sign that authorities were not prepared to allow even a hint of dissent or any questioning of el-Sissi's continued rule ahead of the vote.

On Monday, Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Al, a die-hard el-Sissi supporter who presides over a chamber packed with backers of the president, claimed that politicians calling for a boycott had no popular support. He also accused them of being unpatriotic. Abdel-Al, according to the official MENA news agency, was speaking at a plenary session debating legislation to set up a fund to "honor" victims of terror attacks.

Egypt's security forces have for years fought Islamic militants in Sinai, but the insurgency became deadlier and expanded after the military in 2013, then led by el-Sissi, ousted an Islamist president, whose one year in office proved divisive. El-Sissi later oversaw what is perhaps the largest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history, jailing thousands of Islamists along with scores of secular, pro-democracy activists.

He also curbed freedoms and placed heavy restrictions on the work of rights groups as he pursued an ambitious economic reform program that has left the country's poor majority struggling in the face of soaring prices.

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