EL-SISI LOOMS OVER EGYPT VOTE BILLED AS STEP TO RESTORE ORDER

CAIRO, Egypt, May 26 – Egyptians vote today to elect a president in a race widely seen as preordained for the former army chief, who toppled the country’s first-ever freely elected civilian leader.

Posters of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, whose fame among Egyptians has rocketed, since he led President Mohamed Mursi’s ouster in July, plastered Cairo’s streets on the eve of the two-day vote. He faces off against Hamdeen Sabahi, a former lawmaker who came third in the last election.

The winner takes the helm of a polarised nation struggling since the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, to recover from political unrest battering the economy, as a surge in violence deters tourists and investors.

El-Sisi, 59, has pledged to restore order and improve living standards with the help of aid from oil-rich Gulf monarchies, seeing Egypt as too important to be allowed to fail. His critics say, he has offered little details on how he will achieve his targets.

“This is effectively a one-horse race,” Anthony Skinner, director for Middle East and North Africa at Maplecroft said by e-mail. “Many Egyptians support El-Sisi because of the stability that he has promised, the desire for a return to a modicum of political normality, and appetite for Egypt’s re-emergence as a respected, heavyweight player.”

During the campaign, El-Sisi has sought to cultivate an image of a man, who is capable of stabilising Egypt, tackling corruption and lowering food prices. He pledged to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, the group which fielded Mursi for power, before being declared a terrorist organisation following his ouster.

His opponents, including Sabahi and youth protest groups, say, he’s an extension of the autocratic military leaders, who ruled Egypt from the 1952 coup until Mubarak’s ouster, a charge the retired field marshal denies.

Human rights groups accuse security forces of leading the worst crackdown on the Brotherhood and other political dissidents in decades, killing hundreds and putting thousands more on politically-motivated trials.

El-Sisi has said, he would tolerate marginal dissent, arguing that it was time to work instead of criticise.

“We are living in the repercussions of the failed revolution,” said Khalil al-Anani, adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He said, Egypt has come full circle to be ruled again by the police and military, the “same institutions of the old regime.”

Authorities are deploying more than 180,000 military and security personnel to guard 13,900 polling stations, to ensure a smooth vote by more than 53 million eligible voters, the state-run Ahram Gate reported. El-Sisi has said, there were a couple of assassination plots targeting him.

Egypt’s interim government has blamed a wave of militant attacks on the Brotherhood. The group has denied the charges. It said, it will boycott the presidential vote, dismissing it as a show put on by the “ruling junta.”

The election comes as 54 percent of Egyptians view stability as more important than democracy, according to a Pew Research poll released last week. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said democracy is the preferred system, down from 66 percent a year earlier.

“What is happening is the apparent rise of conservatives in Egypt, and the question is whether the public is so fatigued or in a conservative mood or so fed up that they insist on something different,” Jon Alterman, head of the Mideast programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said by phone.

El-Sisi’s bet “is a combination of law enforcement, effective administration and gradual progress will be enough to square the circle,” he said.

The costs of unrest and false starts since the 2011 uprising have been high. The currency has weakened to a record, fueling inflation, power cuts have become standard and unemployment at a record. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pledged about $15 billion in aid.

The largess has replenished foreign reserves, allowing the central bank to cut interest rates three times since Aug. The benchmark EGX 30 Index of equities has rallied more than 75 percent to the highest level in almost six years.

El-Sisi has said that reviving the economy will take time and sacrifices.

In a recent television interview, he said, private businesses will have to accept lower profit margins and that energy subsidies benefiting the rich can’t continue. Both Mursi and Mubarak failed to tackle the subsidies bill, which consumes about a third of the state budget.

If El-Sisi were to succeed, he will have to confront the “old elite, who, in the first place are his main supporters,” said al-Anani. That will mean difficult choices, in order not to alienate businessmen, while still luring investments needed to maintain government spending to ensure stability, he said.

If he fails to deliver, he’ll face a population that, since 2011, has learned how to seek change.

“This isn’t the end of the game,” al-Anani said, when asked about eroding patience and El-Sisi’s ability to lead. “The significant change that happened after the Jan revolution was the change in peoples’ awareness, and the demands for change will not disappear.”

SOURCE: MENA