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Ali, a 41-year-old commuter bus driver in New Cairo, has been harping on and on about how front-runner and former Defense Minister Abdel Fatah El-Sissi will “fix” Egypt.
“I’m voting for El-Sissi, he’s much more of a nationalist and patriot than the other guy,” Ali says.
The “other guy” is Hamdeen Sabahi who according to almost all polling numbers is expected to lose, despite winning popular support during the January 2011 uprising and its aftermath.
This is Sabahi’s second bid for president; in 2012, he came in third in an election that later went into a runoff between the then Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and former air force chief Ahmed Shafik.
Sabahi has said he is running now to ensure the election is democratic.
El-Sissi has dominated the radio and TV networks while Sabahi has concentrated more on holding rallies in different parts of the country.
But support for the former defense minister is much broader.
Pro-El-Sissi posters and banners – some set up by official campaigners and others by independent neighborhood committees, families, and business leaders – dominate the cityscape by as much as 10 to 1, with Sabahi fliers and leaflets to be found in less populated spaces.
The posters themselves also indicate how many Egyptians view the two candidates: In some, a lion stands next to El-Sissi depicting strength, confidence and dominance under the slogan “Long Live Egypt”; El-Sissi has been called a “hero for freeing Egypt from the clutches of the Muslim Brotherhood”, as one waiter put it last week.
On July 3, 2013, El-Sissi ordered the Egyptian military to remove Morsi from office. The former president is currently awaiting trial on a number of charges, including conspiracy to commit murder during a prison escape in 2011.
Hamdeen’s posters, however, are typical – a picture of the smiling candidate next to his slogan “For All Egyptians”.
For some of the young men and women who braved the batons, rubber bullets and tear gas of the police during ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the campaign posters and the fierce debates represent a striking reversal of fortune.
Taking to Tahrir Square three years ago, many among the youth had expected that they were on the verge of establishing civilian democratic rule.
Now, they say they are reluctant to participate in the political process.
On an outing in the gated community of Al-Rihab, a number of young ‘revolutionaries’ who first met in Tahrir Square in 2011 now gathered to reflect on the election.
Ahmed Al Zohairy, 24, a Corporate Trainer at a consulting company, is going to boycott the ballot.
“El-Sissi will probably win and the country will return to Mubarak’s military rule if not more brutal than and [as] oppressive as Abdel Nasser’s era. Freedom of expression and press will be restricted,” he said.
Al Zohairy was alluding to a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which showed that freedom of the press rapidly declined during Morsi’s rule in 2012 and has culminated in more restrictions on objective reporting.
“The deeply polarized Egyptian press was battered by an array of repressive tactics throughout 2013, from the legal and physical intimidation during the tenure of former President Mohamed Morsi to the widespread censorship by the military-backed government that replaced him,” CPJ said in December.
With six reporters killed on the job, CPJ has ranked Egypt third after Syria and Iraq on the list of deadliest places to work as a journalist.
But for 25-year-old Khalid Laymouna, an account manager at a bank, El-Sissi provides a way out of the current crisis.
“I can’t continue to live in the current chaos,” he said, “Although I’m not sure El-Sissi will bring stability, but at least let’s try.”
Laymouna says that El-Sissi has long-term applicable objectives – to build factories, to expand development beyond Cairo, and to create conditions that are ripe for investment and increased employment opportunities.
Egypt’s economy has since 2011 nearly faltered. The socio-political divisions, coupled with insecurity and the terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist groups have nearly destroyed the tourism industry which used to add at least $10 billion in revenue to the government’s coffers.
The instability of the last three years has also led to a considerable flight of foreign investment capital from Egyptian projects.
The Central Bank stepped in to alleviate the burden left by the investment gap but the Egyptian Pound fell by nearly 22 per cent against the US dollar in the past three years.
Consequently, the government spent over $20 billion of its strategic reserves, which are now at a critical level of $15 billion – barely enough to cover two months of imports.
“Local sentiment is best described as cautious and in some cases negative. Investors are awaiting stability to move in,” Wael Ziada, the head of research at regional investment bank EFG-Hermes, previously told The BRICS Post.
A force of stability?
Hagar Ibrahim, 25, had her six-month-old child in tow when she joined millions of Egyptians on June 30 last year demanding Morsi step down,.
She says the best hope is to return to the socio-economic track the country was following before the January 25 uprising.
“Although El-Sissi will likely launch development in the country, he has a huge potential to be the next Mubarak,” she says, adding she will cast her ballot for Sabahi.
Amr Ahmed, a 35-year-old employee at the Railway Authority, says he moonlights as a taxi driver to supplement his meager income.
But he believes security should be a paramount concern in Egypt.
In the midst of a typical traffic jam, with cars honking and drivers cursing, he had to raise his voice to say that he is considering not voting on Monday.
“Last time [in 2012] I voted for former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa in the first round, and I voted for Ahmed Shafik in the runoff because I didn’t want the Muslim Brotherhood to win,” he says.
“I would accept whoever wins the elections…even a Jewish president. I just want to feel safe in the country, to feel safe about my three young children. I want stability,” said Ahmed.
Violence has spiked since Morsi was ousted last July. In the 11 months since then, hundreds of civilians and members of the security forces and military have been killed in Cairo, Mansoura, El Arish, Rafah and other areas of the country.
Government officials, such as the interior minister, have been targets of assassination by extremist groups.
In the latest violence, a bomb at a pro-El-Sissi rally injured six people; three security officers were killed in a drive-by shooting near Cairo’s Al Azhar Mosque university, and on Friday pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters clashed leaving two dead.
Meanwhile, over 320,000 expatriate Egyptians voted from New Zealand to Canada, covering some 124 countries. According to the election commission, El-Sissi won 94.5 per cent of the expat vote.
But the turnout – some 53 per cent of 600,000 eligible expatriate voters – indicates that in Egypt the number of people heading to the polls is likely to be higher.
According to the local Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research Baseera, Egyptians 50 years old and above are more likely to vote than the younger generation. Baseera said that 83 per cent of polled youth said they would vote while 92 per cent of those aged 50 and above said they would go to the ballot.
Nine per cent of those polled, like e-marketing consultant Nouran Raouf, said they would not vote.
“I don’t feel my vote will matter, and even if it mattered I think it [the vote] will be rigged,” Raouf, who participated in January 25 and June 30 demonstrations, says.
On the eve of the election, Baseera says its surveys indicate that 15 per cent of the electorate are still undecided who to pick as the next president.
By Salma Hegab for The BRICS Post in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt