By Farah Saafan and Aidan Lewis
CAIRO (Reuters) -Abdel Fattah al-Sisi swept on Monday to a third term as Egypt’s president in an election where he faced no serious challengers, calling the vote a rejection of the “inhumane war” in neighbouring Gaza.
The election, in which he took 89.6% of the vote according to the National Election Authority, was held as Egypt struggles with a slow-burning economic crisis and tries to manage the risk of spillover from the war adjacent to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Many people in the Arab world’s most populous country expressed indifference about the Dec. 10-12 election, saying the result was a foregone conclusion.
The state and tightly controlled domestic media pushed hard to boost turnout, which the election authority said had reached 66.8% – well above the 41% recorded at the last presidential election in 2018.
Some voters said the conflict had encouraged them to vote for Sisi, who has long presented himself as a bulwark of stability in a volatile region – an argument that has also proved effective with Gulf and Western allies providing financial support to his government.
“Egyptians lined up to vote not just to choose their president for the next term, but to express their rejection of this inhumane war to the entire world,” Sisi said in a speech soon after results were announced.
He described the war between Israel and Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas as Egypt’s primary challenge.
Israel’s heavy bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip, after a Hamas incursion into Israel, has flattened much of the enclave and left most of its people homeless. Egypt has said it will not allow any cross-border exodus of Gazans.
The election featured three other candidates, none of them high profile. The most prominent potential challenger halted his run in October, saying officials and thugs had targeted his supporters – accusations dismissed by the election authority.
“There were no elections, Sisi used the entire state apparatus and security agencies to prevent any serious contender from even running,” said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent group.
“Just like last time he handpicked his opponents who only went through the motions of running against the president with either muted or almost no criticism of his disastrous policies.”
Reuters reporters witnessed voters being bussed into polling stations and bags of food being handed out, while some said they were pressured by employers to cast a ballot. The state media body said any provision of money or goods in return for votes was a criminal offence.
Egypt’s state media body said the vote was a step towards political pluralism and authorities have denied violations of electoral rules.
Sisi, a former general, has overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent across the political spectrum since leading the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
He was elected to the presidency in 2014, and re-elected in 2018, both times with 97% of the vote. The constitution was amended in 2019, extending the presidential term to six years from four, and allowing Sisi to stand for a third term.
Some admire an infrastructure drive including a new capital built from scratch in the desert east of Cairo, which Sisi has said marks the launch of a “new republic”. Others see the city as a costly extravagance. Rapid inflation, a chronic foreign currency shortage, and a rising debt burden have led to growing criticism of economic policy.
“I renew my pact with you, to together exert every effort to continue building the new republic, that we hope to erect according to a shared vision,” Sisi said in a taped speech aired on state television with little fanfare.
While economic decisions including a possible currency devaluation could follow the vote, Egypt’s governing structure with a dominant military was unlikely to change, with repression of dissent a “huge deterrent” against unrest, said Michael Hanna, U.S. program director at Crisis Group.
“They’ve sort of stuck to their guns on how they’ve run the country and they seem impervious to the results of their governance approach,” he said.
Sisi’s backers say security is paramount. Women were among those to benefit from his rule, though there is more to be done, said Nourhan ElAbbassy, assistant secretary-general of the youth branch of the pro-Sisi Homat AlWatan party.
“We would love to see more females in key positions, more female ministers in the cabinet as long as they’re qualified, and revisions of personal rights laws that have to do with issues like marriage, divorce and alimony,” she said.
Authorities have sought to address criticism of Egypt’s human rights record with steps including opening a national dialogue and releasing some prominent prisoners. Critics have dismissed the moves as largely cosmetic.
(Reporting by Farah Saafan in Cairo and Aidan Lewis in London; additional reporting by Nayera Abdallah and Jana Choukeir; editing by Nick Macfie, Mark Heinrich and Deepa Babington)