Egyptians will trudge to polling stations on Monday on the first of two days of voting to elect a new president, with the former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expected to win easily.
Mr Sisi, who helped depose previous leader Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July last year, has become the candidate of consensus for the forces of Egypt’s old elite, as well as a great many ordinary people who, battered and bruised by three years of street conflict and a floundering economy, say they yearn for a strong hand to restore stability.
“I have no option,” said Salah Mohamed, 32, a government employee, who plans to vote for Mr Sisi. “I’m scared because I have a family to take care of. I’m afraid the economic situation will get worse and then I’ll be in real trouble.”
In interviews, Mr Sisi has exhorted Egyptians to work hard and sacrifice on behalf of the nation; advocating long hours and energy-saving light bulbs. He backs a law which makes protesting illegal without police permission. This has seen at least 16,000 arrested, many of them from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr Sisi has been the object of a minor personality cult since last summer’s coup and a hero to those who despise or fear the Brotherhood. His likeness adorns not only hoardings and t-shirts, but cupcakes and the head of one man who asked his barber to shave the field marshal’s silhouette onto his skull. But the breadth of his popularity is this deeply divided country is not all it may seem. What can appear as a consensus in his favour is as much a product of the repression and disillusionment of his opponents as broad enthusiasm.
A recent poll found that 54 per cent of Egyptians have a positive opinion of Mr Sisi, the same margin by which they prioritise stability over democracy. A separate poll by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research suggested that a fortnight ago just two per cent had decided for his lone challenger, the genial leftist Hamdeen Sabbahy, who came third in the last elections in 2012.
Other candidates withdrew, several referring to the election as a “farce”, in the context of the massive support of both the media and state institutions for Mr Sisi. These objections are also felt by some citizens who feel deep resentment.
Winding his way through choked Cairo traffic on Sunday afternoon, a young motorist loudly played an anti-Sisi song dubbed to the tune of “Gangnam Style” and said he would not vote after one of his friends was killed by police last August while protesting in support of Mr Morsi. “Sisi’s a killer,” he claimed over the din.
Abdalrahman Refaat, a 27-year-old engineer sympathetic to the Brotherhood, compared the elections to a television game show. “People are voting for a person not for ideas... and Hamdeen [Sabbahy] is part of the game.”
While Mr Sisi’s victory does not appear to be doubt, turnout will be important, as if it is high Mr Sisi will feel he can claim that the populace is behind him. To reinforce the point of the importance of participation, the country’s interim president on Sunday urged Egyptians to come out and vote in the election, saying it will shape the nation’s future.
In a televised address, Adly Mansour also sought to assure Egyptians that state institutions, including his office, would not interfere in the two-day vote, trying to allay concerns over support for Mr Sisi. “Let us all come out tomorrow and the day after to express our free choice. Choosing, without being guided or dictated to, the person we trust to have the ability to build and run the nation,” Mr Mansour said.
“The state’s institutions, with the presidency at their heart, stand at an equal distance from the two presidential candidates. They have not and will not direct any citizen to a specific choice. Instead, we are all concerned with security and a wide popular participation,” Mr Mansour said in the recorded five-minute address.
Additional reporting by Deyaa Adel
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