Cairo: While Egypt is bracing for a presidential election at the weekend, the country is mostly procupied with the raging war in the neighbouring Gaza Strip amid fears of a Palestinian exodus into the Egyptian territory.
Polls are due to begin on Sunday and run for three straight days. Egyptians living abroad voted earlier this month.
Incumbent President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi is seeking a third term and competing against three politicians. They are the head of the Al Wafd Party Abdul Sanad Yamma; Hazem Omar, the head of the People’s Republican Party; and Farid Zahran, the leader of the Egyptian Democratic Social Party.
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The election is held amid an economic crisis in this most populous Arab country of around 105 million people. Egyptian economy has felt the brunt of the global pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and most recently the Gaza showdown.
However, Al Sissi, an ex-defence chief who has been in office since 2014, is most likely to be re-elected. He is riding a wave of popularity due to his perceived competent handling of the Gaza crisis.
Egypt has joined hands with Qatar to mediate a week-long humanitarian pause in Gaza fighting and a hostage exchange deal between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement. The truce expired on December 1, with no new ceasefire looming in sight.
Egypt runs the Rafah border crossing, the only border facility with Gaza not controlled by Israel. Cairo has persistently lobbied for an inflow of relief aid into Gaza, an impoverished enclave of around 2.3 million people.
Al Sissi has repeatedly opposed a potential forced displacement of Gazans into Egypt under a relentless Israeli military campaign mounted after Hamas’s October 7 daring attacks.
“Egypt renews its complete rejection of the Palestinians’ forced migration and displacement to the Egyptian lands in Sinai. For this would just mean final liquidation of the Palestinian cause and an end to the dream of the independent Palestinian state,” Al Sissi said at a Middle East peace conference held in Cairo two weeks after the war outbreak.
Sympathy with Gazans and aid campaigns have since surged in Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
“This war has shown the true mettle and valour of Al Sissi,” wrote Al Masry Al Youm columnist Sabri Ghoneim.
“Al Sissi’s insistence on opening safe corridors and delivery of medical and food aid to the Gazans marks a victory for Egypt and the Egyptians,” he added. “So, it is no strange for the Egyptians to say that our votes are for President Al Sissi,” Ghoneim argued.
For his part, presidential hopeful Zahran promised that if elected, his first foreign trip will be to Gaza to show solidarity.
“If Sadat visited Jerusalem to conclude a peace agreement , it would be a priority for a new elected president to visit Gaza and calls from there for solidarity with Gaza,” the 66-year-old contender said in a TV interview, referring to the ex-Egyptian president’s landmark 1977 visit to Israel.
Zahran, an opposition contender, believes that the the Gaza war is affecting the election mood in Egypt in two respects. “First, Egyptian public opinion is busy with following up the situation,” he said.
“Secondly, there is now a category among Egyptians who think that in view of the risks facing national security, it is natural that there should be a military president at the helm. But, we aren’t at war despite threats to our security.”
Al Sissi, 69, is credited with re-establishing security in Egypt after a spate of Islamist militant bombings.
With Al Siss’re-election seeming a forgone conclusion, the challenge now is if there will be a big voter turnout.
To this end, the electoral commission, a panel of judges in charge of the process, has launched a TV campaign urging voters to participate.
To encourage the electorate, the commission has also allowed voters to change their polling stations to the ones near their residences and set up special polling centres for Egyptians living away from their hometowns.
Likewise, an Egyptian political grouping, known as the Coordination of Political Parties’ Youth, has mounted nationwide campaigns aimed to raise public awareness about importance of going to polls.
Dubbed “come down and participate,” the effort has featured a series of provincial rallies, and syumposiums in different Egyptian universities and youth centres.
The final result of the election is to be announced on December 18. In case there is a run-off, it will be held on January 5, 6 and 7 for Egyptian expatriates, and on January 8,9 and 10 inside Egypt.
Under constitutional amendments approved in a 2019 referendum, the presidential term in Egypt has been extended from four to six years.