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Sisi poised to win power again, but Egyptians’ minds are on Gaza

<span>Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

For Egyptians, the only signs that an election is imminent are the posters of President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi’s face plastered on every available wall and billboard across the country.

The repetitive images of Sisi – always gazing into the distance with a stiff, forced smile – are so ubiquitous that people have turned to the only venue for free expression they have left and have begun making memes of them to share online. One picture that circulated features Jack and Rose from the film Titanic sitting on the deck of the ship surrounded by Sisi’s campaign posters. In another, people joke that a pregnant woman passed so many pictures of Sisi on her way to work that her newborn baby resembled the incumbent president.

After seizing power in a military coup in 2013, Sisi has won two presidential elections with 97% of the vote, the last of which was against a candidate who openly supported his rule. In a now familiar scene, the sole potential candidate who represented real opposition was also prevented from running this time around.

“It doesn’t feel like there are any elections happening. Everyone’s minds are really on what’s happening in Gaza,” said Mohamed Lotfy of the human rights group Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF).

“There’s no hope these elections will bring anything new except a third mandate for Sisi, so there’s a kind of acceptance. The other candidates aren’t running to win – everyone understands they are running because they hope to get political favours in the future.”

“The election was over a long time ago!” laughed Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, the nephew of Egypt’s former president and longtime political grandee whose career includes expulsion from parliament, a short-lived election campaign in 2018 and being a negotiator helping to free some of the tens of thousands of prisoners in Egypt’s jails.

“Now it’s all about the level of turnout, meaning what Sisi will get: this is the election. Otherwise it’s over, in my opinion. Sure, there are three other candidates, but they’re just there to make the overall picture look nice. They’re not real competition.”

Sisi has long claimed that opposition rule would cause the downfall of the country, while promising that his many glittering mega projects, including expanding the Suez canal and a shiny new capital on the outskirts of Cairo, would bring prosperity. Reality has proven harsh, and an estimated third of the population is poor, according to the state’s own estimates, while this year inflation has almost surpassed 40%, with food inflation even higher.

“Don’t you dare say you would rather eat than build and progress,” Sisi said in a speech in October. “If the price of the nation’s progress and prosperity is to go hungry and thirsty, then let us not eat or drink.”

Sisi’s rule has combined biting austerity measures for the public with lavish spending within a regime where only the president and a few of his closest confidants wield power, particularly his notorious spy chief Abbas Kamel, who has spearheaded hostage negotiations with Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip, and his son Mahmoud el-Sisi, who is also a high-ranking security official.

Outside the halls of power, Sisi has used the past 10 years to purge society of anyone or any institution that could present even the most minor opposition, jailing political opponents, civil society members, journalists and ordinary citizens while overseeing the rebirth of a gargantuan police state.

“When we look at where Egypt is at now, after 10 years under Sisi’s rule, it’s difficult to understand why anyone, including him, would think Egypt would be better off if he was to continue to rule for another six years,” said Egypt political economy expert Timothy E Kaldas of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“More Egyptians are in poverty than when he took office, external debt has nearly quadrupled and the interest payments on this debt alone consume nearly all the tax revenue of the country. If that’s the damage he can do in 10 years, how much more does he plan to do in the coming six?”

The expectation, said Kaldas, is that the state will conduct a vast vote-buying campaign in a repeat of previous years, when buses of working-class Egyptians were paid in bags of food to drive up turnout.

“Part of the reason votes can be bought so cheaply is because of how desperate so much of the population is,” he said. “You give people a couple of dollars for a carton of food and they will vote, or an employer with ties to the regime coerces people into voting. That’s basically the bulk of the turnout.”

With little prospect of a free and fair election, most Egyptians are more concerned with Israel’s assault on Gaza, just over a border in the Sinai that has long remained closed, amid unprecedented warm relations with Israel, including Sisi meeting openly prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even so, Sisi skirted a longstanding ban on public protest and designated a single day and specific areas for the public to demonstrate over Gaza in a bid to manage public anger. This plan backfired when crowds of demonstrators marched to Cairo’s Tahrir square, the site of the 2011 uprising to demand the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Related: The war on Gaza has sharpened Egyptian popular grievances – both on Palestine and at home | Reem Abou-El-Fadl

ECRF tracked arrests following the demonstrations and found that 115 people were held in Cairo and Alexandria. Today 67 remain on trial on charges ranging from breaking a law banning protest to terrorism.

“They don’t want this situation to happen again, which is partly why the security agencies refused to give a green light to an international convoy of activists who hoped to travel to the Rafah crossing,” said ECRF’s Lotfy.

Despite Egypt’s role in hostage negotiations providing some international clout, Sisi’s inability to wield power on Gaza risks exposing the fragility of his rule at home.

“There is a double-edged sword for the government: it wants to de-escalate the situation because it means tension at home, and frustration that the state is unable to do more than what it’s doing already,” said Lotfy.

“The more images of bombings, the angrier the public gets, including at the government for being so powerless in terms of being unwilling to force Israel to open the borders and let in more aid. They need to show they have a role in terms of forcing a ceasefire and refusing the displacement of Palestinians into Sinai. If they fail, the question becomes: how are they both failing and not letting us vent this anger through protests?”