CAIRO - Abdel Fattah al-Sissi needs no election campaign. The general-turned-president’s crackdown on challengers and dissent, which critics say surpasses that before Egypt’s 2011 uprising, has already ensured he will win a second term.
Central Cairo is nonetheless adorned with banners and billboards proclaiming support for Sissi, who led the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president in 2013 and returned the military establishment to power.
Next Monday, seven years after the Arab Spring protests that ousted Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and others in the Middle East, Egypt will once again hold the kind of vote that kept those leaders in power for decades.
Voters have two choices: Sissi, or a second, barely known candidate who backs Sissi. The election commission says the vote will be free and fair.
For activists who led the 2011 protests demanding accountability and free and fair elections, next week’s vote shows how those hopes have been dashed.
“There’s no meaning to the election ... people aren’t interested in it,” human rights campaigner Laila Soueif, 61, said by phone. The vote is simply a way for Sissi to show he is “well and truly in control”, she said.
Sissi has supporters. Those who will turn out to re-elect the former field marshal for another four years hope he can restore security and improve the economy of the most populous Arab country by crushing Islamist militants and seeing through austerity measures.
In downtown Cairo, posters showing the president standing at podiums, wearing a hard hat and looking through binoculars read: “Sissi for stability” and “to eradicate terrorism”.
Opponents, however, say his presidency has brought Egypt’s toughest crackdown on dissent and freedoms, while his popularity has eroded as the economic reforms, including a steep currency devaluation, have left most Egyptians worse off.
In the months before the vote, two prominent former military men made surprise announcements that they would run against Sissi, with indications from the street that their bids might be popular.
One of them, ex-military chief of staff Sami Anan, was arrested in January, accused of illegally running for public office, and remains detained. The other, former air force commander and prime minister Ahmed Shafik, dropped his presidential bid after reports he had been detained at a hotel.
One of Anan’s top campaign managers was beaten and hospitalized, accusing authorities of being behind his assault, and another former presidential candidate was arrested. All other serious opposition pulled out of the race citing intimidation.
Rights groups say authorities have also cracked down on media ahead of the vote in a bid to silence criticism.
The United Nations rights chief this month expressed concern over a “climate of intimidation”, and urged much greater respect for Egyptians’ fundamental freedoms and rights.
Sissi’s campaign spokesman this week said the government had not prevented any candidate from running.
But after opposition withdrawals the only other choice for voters, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, supports Sissi and hopes the incumbent will win.
Moussa has little support and his campaigning has been half-hearted. At one Cairo square, there are nearly 40 banners of Sissi, and two of Moussa - one obscured behind an image of the president.
Security, economic challenges ahead
Although almost certain to win, Sissi faces big challenges after the vote: an ailing economy with a fast-growing population of nearly 100 million, and a stubborn insurgency by Islamic State fighters trying to destabilize the country.
The military is battling jihadists in a conflict that has driven residents from their homes in impoverished areas of Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula.
The biggest concern for most Egyptians, however, is the economy and unemployment. Although overall unemployment fell below 12 percent last year, a quarter of Egypt’s swelling youth are jobless, according to the central statistics office.
Even Egyptians with jobs have seen their spending power slashed after austerity measures tied to a $12 billion International Monetary Fund loan.
As people feel the pinch, Sissi has pressed on with massive infrastructure projects such as an expansion of the Suez Canal and a new capital being built east of Cairo, with none of the promised financial relief yet filtering down.
“It’s got so expensive,” retired civil servant Ahmed, 62, said outside a Cairo metro station. “I get a 1,200 pound ($60) pension, half of which goes on utilities.”
“They (authorities) go on about GDP growth and so on, but what good are those figures and what’s the point of big projects if people can’t afford anything?”
Ahmed, who gave only his first name fearing reprisals by authorities, said he would not bother voting.
“It’s a referendum, not an election. The rest of the world must be laughing at us. We want a civilian president, not a military one.”
Military back in charge
Sissi’s overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 put a former armed forces chief in charge of Egypt once again. Senior military officers have dominated Egypt’s politics and much of its economy for decades.
Analysts say the military’s role is more overt than it has been in the past.
“What’s different about today is how ‘out front’ it (the military) is” in its role in the economy, said HA Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
As authorities keep thousands of suspected Islamists behind bars and courts hand down death sentences, Mubarak-era officials accused of corruption and killings have under Sissi been released or had cases against them dropped.
Nationalism encouraged by the military has accompanied the build-up to the election. An army official recently told journalists at a briefing near Cairo not to “harm your nation” by publishing news not from state outlets.
In the 2014 election, Sissi won 96.91 percent of the vote, with turnout of about 47 percent of 54 million voters.