By Farah Saafan, Amina Ismail and Aidan Lewis
CAIRO (Reuters) -Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is set to secure six more years as Egypt’s president in an election held in the shadow of the nearby war in the Gaza Strip, despite growing unease about the country’s economic performance.
Over nearly a decade in power, Sisi has presented himself as a guarantor of stability in a volatile region, a message that has added traction in a year when two conflicts, in Sudan and Gaza, have erupted on Egypt’s borders.
Critics see the Dec. 10-12 election as a non-event after a decade-long crackdown on dissent. And while the result has not been in doubt, economic pressures including soaring prices have driven public debate and stirred criticism of Sisi’s record.
Politically, the Gaza war was a “God-given gift, despite all the misery … which allows the sidelining of the entire presidential election story,” said Khaled Dawoud, a leading member of the Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of opposition parties and figures that has fractured over whether to boycott or compete in the election.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the president to rally support around him, especially at a time of economic crisis.”
Sisi announced that his campaign would be curtailed to save funds for aid to Gaza, though giant posters showing his face have proliferated on roadsides and buildings.
Sisi’s campaign office did not respond to requests for comment.
In an interview on Egyptian TV on Wednesday, campaign manager Mahmoud Fawzy said Sisi had prioritised rebuilding the state since he came to power and that political participation “may not have been the top priority for everyone”. He dismissed the idea that competition in the election was not fair.
“Anyone who may be considering running in the elections against our candidate must think twice for one reason: our candidate has significant achievements and wide popularity, but the race was open to everyone,” he said.
Egypt’s State Information Service said in a statement on Thursday that the election was a step towards opening up political competition.
Sisi has overseen a far-reaching crackdown since leading the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. He retains the support of a military establishment that has gained further political and economic influence under his rule.
The Muslim Brotherhood, traditionally Egypt’s most powerful opposition force, has been driven underground or abroad.
In order to try to channel popular frustrations, authorities did not want a repeat of the previous two presidential elections, in which Sisi was declared winner with 97% of the vote, said Medhat el-Zahed, head of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, which is boycotting the vote.
“They needed to have a certain degree of competition … so long as the ceiling is defined and in check,” he told Reuters.
The three candidates who qualified to stand against Sisi are low-profile figures muted in their criticism of his record.
One of them, Wafd Party head Abdel Sanad Yamama, said there was not even a need for Sisi to explain himself in the media like other candidates, because his achievements spoke for themselves.
A national dialogue earlier this year allowed the airing of some critical views and was accompanied by some pardons for prisoners, but arrests continued. Parliament is dominated by Sisi supporters and the media tightly controlled by his allies.
A campaign by leftist politician Ahmed al-Tantawy, the most prominent potential opposition candidate, briefly tapped into pent-up discontent before he halted his run, citing pressure from pro-government forces.
He is now facing a judicial case on allegations of illicitly circulating forms to collect endorsements for his candidacy.
“Where are the elections?” Tantawy said in an interview. “The president is competing with whoever he chooses to compete against.”
Sisi swept to victory in previous elections on promises of restoring security after the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time leader Hosni Mubarak, and developing the economy.
In 2018, the only other candidate was an ardent Sisi supporter, the main challenger was arrested, and other hopefuls pulled out citing intimidation.
The constitution was amended in 2019, extending the presidential term to six years from four, and allowing Sisi to stand for a third term.
But the economy has faltered, with the state crowding out the private sector and sovereign debt ballooning after a spending spree on infrastructure mega-projects including a new capital east of Cairo.
“We wished that President Sisi, at some point before announcing his candidacy, would have decided not to run again and be content with 10 years,” said Mohamed Anwar Sadat, a moderate opposition figure and former member of parliament.
“I think the big challenge now will be the turnout,” he said, adding that the threat of spillover from the war in Gaza had made some people wary of seeking change and had distracted from economic troubles.
Grumbles about the economy have not gone away, however.
“I would’ve voted for the guy who passed away,” said one man outside the Cairo building housing the Sisi campaign headquarters, referring to Mubarak. “We are also people. Living under these difficult conditions, life is tough.”
(Reporting by Farah Saafan, Amina Ismail and Aidan Lewis; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)