Despite mass popular support, el-Sissi generates voter boycott controversy

(Courtesy of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi | Twitter)CAIRO— Claiming the upcoming elections are neither free nor fair, many Egyptian activists are calling for an election boycott as President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi seeks a second term next month.

With Egypt’s presidential elections just a month away, these activists – whose views reflect the values and aspirations of the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising – say they are concerned over the imprisonment of three presidential candidates and the withdrawal of four others.

Only one nominal opponent, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, the leader of the Ghad party who had previously endorsed the president for a second term, will run against El-Sissi.

But observers say the complaints miss the point: El-Sissi would win even if he had more competition on the ballot: Massive swaths of society make up his solid electoral base and these voters are motivated more by a message of security than promises of freedom.

As a result, El-Sissi, say analysts, is a hero to millions.

“Look at the giant projects he got done in just four years, new cities, power plants and expanding the Suez Canal,” said Raafat Tawfik, a middle school history teacher in Assiut, an Upper Egyptian city 230 miles south of Cairo. “El-Sissi saved us from the Muslim Brotherhood and put his life on the line for this country.”

His solid base includes Egypt’s gargantuan core of 26 million state employees – including nearly 1.5 million teachers – a group that is more than double their American counterpart. They are particularly receptive to El-Sissi’s twin themes of doubling down on security and government-directed economic development.

But so are 10 million Coptic Christians: Islamic State terror attacks on Egyptian churches effectively have hardened the attachment of this minority group to El-Sissi, former head of military intelligence and army field marshal.

“The president made Christmas special this year despite the terror attacks, “said Tag Girgis a 53-year-old real estate developer who praised El-Sissi’s for keeping his promise to erect a massive church in the New Administrative Capital – a $45 billion project under rapid construction in the desert 28 miles east of Cairo.

Girgis said business at his vacation rentals at the Red Sea resort of Hurghada is just beginning to pick up after a seven-year slump that began with 2011 ousting of President Hosni Mubarak – another former military figure – and the 2013 removal of President Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The slump in visitors continues after Russia suspended flights to Egypt in the wake of the October 2015 downing of a Saint Petersburg bound passenger jet taking off from Sharm el Sheikh, an attack claimed by the Islamic State which killed all 224 people on board.

“My occupancy rate is now 60 percent and that’s an improvement over last year,” added Girgis “The decline in the Russian tourism sector is responsible for our problem, not El-Sissi.”

Meanwhile, the campaign is out in full force. Egyptian cinema stars and soccer players are appearing in videos to drum up support for El-Sissi’s re-election bid, while old fashioned ward politics including union-backed turn-out drives and financial incentives for signing endorsements of the president are part of Egyptian electioneering – as are appeals directed at specific demographic groups.

Like Coptic Christians and civil servants, women are being organized to turn out for El-Sissi’s re-election, and many are enthusiastic about doing so.

“It's enough that I can walk down the street and feel safe – previously we could not,” said Ayda Hassan, a 39-year-old administrator at the Al-Masalla Preparatory Girls School in north Cairo, who praised the government’s stepped-up campaign against sexual harassment, a major issue on Egyptian's streets for women.

Just four days before the formal announcement of his candidacy, El-Sissi moved to add two women ministers to his 33-member cabinet.

By bringing that number to six the president brought the percentage of women ministers to just over 18 percent -slightly edging out the proportion in neighboring Israel which stands at four out of 23 or 17 percent.

“The participation rate of Egyptian women in the upcoming election will be unprecedented,” predicted Manal Al-Absi, president of the Arab Academy for Leadership Development, a Cairo nonprofit that provides executive skills training. “And they support the president for providing real solutions that get done by the promised deadlines.”

The president’s supporters often praise El-Sissi as they compare what they view as Egypt’s relative stability to the carnage caused by wars and terrorism in Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Libya.

“When we look at the countries around us, we will say: Praise be to God. We are much better off than them,” said Hassan.

El-Sissi’s campaign knows that with just one obscure contender they need to meet or exceed the 47 percent of the 54 million voter turnout of the 2014 ballot that brought their man to the presidency to validate the claim that he retains the nation’s loyalty.

Just to make sure, there is a plan B: In the poorer parts of Egypt’s countryside, a provision that fines citizens 500 Egyptian pounds ($28) for failing to show up at polling stations is as likely to drive that turnout as passion for the candidates.

“El-Sissi is doing an awesome job on security but because of the higher prices now for crop fertilizer, I'm not so happy about my money situation,” said Ramsis Al Ouny, a farmer in the rural Sohag governorate, about 300 miles south of Cairo. “I’m going to vote for the winner, El-Sissi, and at the same time make sure to avoid that 500-pound fee for not showing up.”

A version of this story has been published in The Washington Times. 
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