SAWT BEIRUT INTERNATIONAL

| 4 March 2024, Monday |

Egyptians head to polls in election overshadowed by Gaza war

As the nation struggles with an economic crisis and a conflict on its border with Gaza, Egyptians started casting ballots for the presidential election on Sunday, which is expected to give Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a third term in office.

Tamed near-record inflation, managing a chronic foreign currency shortage, and averting spillover from the conflict between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers would be Sisi’s top priorities if he were to win a second six-year term.

Voting, which runs from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. (0700-1900 GMT), is spread over three days, with results due to be announced on Dec. 18.

Patriotic songs played on a loop as polling stations opened on Sunday morning in Cairo, where pictures of Sisi proliferated in the weeks leading up to the election. Riot police were deployed at entrances to Tahrir Square in the capital’s centre.

Critics see the election as a sham after a decade-long crackdown on dissent. The government’s media body has called it a step towards political pluralism.

Three candidates qualified to stand against Sisi in the election, none of them high-profile figures. The most prominent potential challenger halted his run in October, saying officials and thugs had targeted his supporters – accusations dismissed by the national election authority.

Authorities and commentators on tightly controlled local media have been urging Egyptians to vote, though some people said days before the poll they did not know when it was taking place. Others said voting would make little difference.

“I was aware there are elections happening, but I had no idea when. I only knew that because of the massive Sisi campaigns around the streets,” said Aya Mohamed, a 35-year-old marketing executive.

“I feel indifferent about the elections because there will be no real change,” she said.

‘I ALWAYS VOTE FOR PRESIDENTS’

As army chief, Sisi led the 2013 ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, before winning the presidency the following year with 97% of the vote. He secured the same margin of victory in 2018.

He has overseen a crackdown that has swept up liberal and leftist activists as well as Islamists. Rights groups say tens of thousands have been jailed.

Sisi and his backers say the crackdown was needed to stabilise Egypt and counter Islamist extremism. He has presented himself as a bulwark of stability as conflict has erupted on Egypt’s borders in Libya, and this year in Sudan and Gaza.

“I will vote for Sisi of course. I love him,” said Nabia Ahmed, a 65-year-old mother of four voting in Bahr al Azam Street in Giza. “I always vote for presidents. I am voting because I want security for my children.”

In Al Arish in northern Sinai, where the military has extended its control after battling Islamist militants, a school named after a dead soldier where pictures of victims of attacks were displayed was being used as a polling station.

“Sisi secured our area for us. We have seen the most blood spilled, the least we can do is vote for him,” said Leila Awad, a local education ministry official in a large group of civil servants who had come to vote.

SOARING PRICES

Egypt’s fast-growing population of 104 million is struggling with soaring prices and other economic pressures, with some people complaining that the state has prioritised costly mega-projects while taking on more debt.

“We are voting for him (Sisi),” said Sabreen Khalifa, a 40-year-old mother of five in Giza. “But we want him to bring down the prices. Food, medicine, rent… it’s all very expensive.”

Behind the polling station, a Reuters reporter saw bags containing flour, rice and other basic commodities being handed out to people who showed ink stains on their fingers indicating they had voted.

Some expressed disappointment that the bags did not contain sugar, recently subject to sharp price rises. Two Reuters reporters saw voters being bussed into polling stations.

Scheduled power cuts linked to reduced gas supplies have been suspended during voting days, two electricity ministry sources said.

The election campaign has been low-key, with Sisi following a typical programme of opening an arms trade fair, inspecting roads and sitting in on examinations for candidates to join military and police academies in the week ahead of the vote.

Some analysts say the election, originally expected in early 2024, was brought forward so economic changes – including devaluation of an already weakened currency – could be implemented afterwards.

The International Monetary Fund on Thursday said it was in talks with Egypt about additional financing under an existing $3 billion loan programme that stalled because of delays to sales of state assets and a promised shift towards a more flexible exchange rate.

“All indicators suggest that we’re going to move quite quickly after the election in terms of proceeding with the IMF reform,” said Hany Genena, chief economist at investment bank Cairo Financial Holding.

    Source:
  • Reuters