No surprises in store as Egypt heads to polls


Egypt is gearing up this month for a presidential election certain to win incumbent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a third term in office, despite rising public discontent as the country faces its worst ever economic crisis.

From Sunday through Tuesday, Egyptians aged 18 and above will be able to cast their ballots for one of four candidates -- former army chief Sisi, in power since he deposed elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and three other relative unknowns.

Preparations for elections in the Arab world's most populous country are massive in scale -- with nearly 9,400 polling stations set up and 15,000 judicial employees working over the three days of voting.

Results are expected to be announced on December 18, unless a second round of voting is required.

However, Egypt's nearly 106 million residents see this as unlikely given Sisi's record of receiving over 96 percent of the vote in both the 2014 and 2018 elections.

For a brief period, some expected the upcoming election to be a tougher race. But the two main opposition figures -- who many say had no real hope of winning, but hoped to highlight dissident voices during the campaign -- are now in prison or awaiting trial.

After a decade-long crackdown on dissent, Egypt ranks 135th out of 140 countries on the World Justice Project's rule of law index.

But beyond the political situation, the number-one priority for Egyptians is the faltering economy, which has been in free-fall since early last year.

- Worst-ever economic crisis -

Egypt's currency has lost over half its value since March 2022 in a series of devaluations that have sent consumer prices spiralling in the import-dependent economy. Inflation has hovered near a record high of about 40 percent.

Virtually all goods are imported into Egypt in dollars and the private sector continues to shrink, while public subsidies are disappearing one by one under pressure from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF is still waiting to conduct its quarterly reviews after approving a $3 billion loan for Egypt last year conditioned on "a permanent shift to a flexible exchange rate regime".

It is now the second country, after Ukraine, at highest risk of a debt crisis, according to analysis by Bloomberg.

Conscious of voters' concern for the economy, presidential candidate Hazem Omar of the Republican People's Party assured them that his first move if elected would be to "control inflation by abolishing VAT on basic foodstuffs".

He spoke at the only televised debate between candidates, during which Sisi was represented by a member of his campaign.

Another candidate, Farid Zahran, the head of the left-wing Egyptian Social Democratic Party, promised the "release of all prisoners of conscience" -- estimated at thousands since Sisi came to power -- and the "abolition of repressive laws".

According to Germany-based Egyptian journalist and scholar Hossam el-Hamalawy, Sisi's expected victory "has little to do with popularity or some outstanding economic performance".

He "will win simply because he controls the executive state institutions and the much-feared security apparatus and has already eliminated any serious contender", he wrote in a piece for the Arab Reform Initiative.

Ezzat Ibrahim, a member of the parliament-appointed National Human Rights Council, categorically denies this.

- 'Forgone conclusion' -

"To claim that the elections are a foregone conclusion is to prevent Egyptians from exercising their rights and to promote a bad image of the state," he told AFP.

In the streets, however, posters and banners proclaiming the support of parties, neighbourhood committees and local figures for the incumbent are ubiquitous.

Conversely, campaign posters for other candidates are few and far between.

In addition to domestic challenges, Hamalawy highlights the impact of the war between Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, neighbouring Egypt's Sinai peninsula.

This conflict, he added, is "threatening further blows to an already crippled economy, while gradually reviving street dissent".

On October 20, hundreds of Egyptians diverted a protest in solidarity with Gaza to Cairo's emblematic Tahrir Square -- where in 2011, mass protests led to the overthrow of then-president Hosni Mubarak -- before being quickly dispersed.

Ever since, there have been no pro-Palestinian marches authorised in the country, where demonstrations are effectively banned.

As a major interlocutor in the conflict, "Sisi probably hopes that the war in Gaza would provide him with leverage with Western and Gulf governments as well as international donors and that he would be able to use this leverage to ease the country's economic and financial crisis," Hamalawy wrote.

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