A climate of fear has become everyday life in Egypt. The Gaza war is also playing into the hands of President Al-Sisi on his way to re-election. There should be no surprises in the election. It’s unclear what comes next.
The view into the distance, the satisfied smile – in his large portraits over the highways of Cairo, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gives the impression of a confident father of the country. A head of state who steers Egypt through uncertain times, who ensures stability on this side of the border even during a very serious war in the neighboring Gaza Strip. The war is playing into Al-Sisi’s hands in the three-day presidential election that began in Egypt on Sunday, and which the incumbent is almost certain to win.
The 69-year-old ex-general will kick things off on Sunday morning in Heliopolis in the east of Cairo. Al-Sisi appears in a dark suit with aviator sunglasses, makes little jokes with the lady at the polling station and then puts his cross on the ballot paper in the booth. He also doesn’t miss the election ink on his little finger, then his black car rolls off again. The TV station Al-Kahira News shows the moments shortly afterwards to patriotic music.
Possibly in a lesson from the 2018 election, which critics described as a “farce”, this time a little more appearance of a democratic election should be created. Three opposing candidates – instead of just one before – have been admitted to the election; the state information service speaks of a “serious path to real political pluralism” and a “democratic transformation”. There was an “atmosphere of openness and full competition” during the election. 67 out of 109 million residents are called upon to cast their vote.
Climate of fear is normal
Al-Sisi has now been in power for a decade, which he took over in 2013 after a military coup. The climate of fear, in which critics say any serious opposition is stifled, has since become normal. The human rights organization Amnesty International reports that repression, such as arrests, increased before the election. Protests are effectively banned in the country.
This was also visible in the only serious opponent, Ahmed al-Tantaui. He withdrew from the race after failing to collect the necessary signatures and reporting arrests and violence against his supporters. The authorities deny the allegations. Al-Tantaui and his 21 employees are now in prison and are awaiting trial. Accusation: Distributing support papers without the approval of the electoral authority.
The Gaza factor
But the election will be overshadowed by the Gaza war anyway. Egypt’s government is very concerned that the war will spread across the border and drive masses of Palestinian refugees into North Sinai seeking protection from Israel’s bombings. Al-Sisi is being praised these days as the man who is preventing Israel’s alleged plans to resettle large numbers of Palestinians in Egypt. As the person who sends humanitarian aid to Gaza and as the head of a government that, together with Qatar, made it possible to release hostages held by the Islamist Hamas.
In 2008, Palestinian militants blew up part of the border wall, causing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to stream across the border into Egypt. They bought what was no longer available due to the tightened blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007, but only got as far as the coastal town of Al-Arish. Security forces used water cannons to try to push people back and close holes in the border wall. The government in Cairo wants to avoid repeating such images at all costs.
Does Al-Sisi accept the many deaths?
The military has now set up a buffer zone around Rafah and the border; the scenario of a violent storm seems much less likely today than in 2008. Palestinians also fear that if they flee to Egypt, for example, they will not be able to return to their families in Gaza. Accordingly, there are also critical voices that accuse Al-Sisi of not doing enough to protect the Palestinians and of accepting the many deaths in Gaza.
“I love our president. Every time I see him on television, I pray for him,” says 67-year-old Faisa Abdel Misih, who came to a Cairo polling station with her husband, who was walking with a cane. “If Al-Sisi wanted, my husband and I would donate our pension to give to the Palestinians. We will always support him because he is a good man. I wish I could meet him before I die.”
Popular despite inflation and high unemployment
You often hear similar sentences on Sundays – despite high unemployment and rapidly rising prices. The inflation rate is 38 percent. Despite allegations that public money is being wasted, for example on building a new capital east of Cairo. Rumors are rife that the currency will be devalued again after the election, which would plunge even more low-income earners into poverty. While it seems clear who will win the election, it is unclear what Egypt is headed for after the election and after the war.
A continuation of the current government could lead to “uncertainty,” says Farid Sahran, probably the best-known of the opposing candidates, after he cast his vote in the Mukattam district. The elections are a “step towards a democratic transition that we hope for and that we are fighting for.” A photo of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hangs above the journalists to whom Sahran is speaking – contrary to the regulations for polling stations.