Egypt’s presidential campaign starts, Sisi's challenger faces uphill battle

There is little visible excitement among Egyptians ahead of the vote, with few expecting an upset.
Sunday 04/03/2018
Vehicles drive by a poster of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which reads “Yes, All of us are with you for Egypt” in Cairo, on February 28. (Reuters)
A settled race? Vehicles drive by a poster of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, on February 28. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Campaigning in Egypt’s presidential race has officially kicked off but few expect a heated contest with just two candidates, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is expected to easily win re-election, competing.

Banners and photos of the candidates, Sisi and Moussa Mostafa Moussa, chairman of the centrist al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, appeared overnight, with pro-Sisi posters easily outnumbering those of his last-minute challenger.

Sisi’s re-election campaign announced it would have a series of public rallies and conferences in several provinces to present a record of the president’s first term in office.

“The president worked on solving most of the problems facing Egyptians during his first term at one and the same time,” Karim Mahmud, a former diplomat and coordinator of Sisi’s campaign, said. “We will work in the coming days to make achievements in this regard clear to everybody.”

When Sisi took office in June 2014, Egypt was facing many major challenges, including a weak economy and deteriorating relations with once staunch allies. The former army chief of staff has stabilised the economy and initiated several large national projects.

“I think these are all facts ordinary people can see,” Mahmud said. “This makes for a promising prospect for our candidate in the election.”

Campaigning will continue until March 23 and voting begins March 26. There is little visible excitement among Egyptians ahead of the vote, with few expecting an upset.

However, staff members at Moussa’s campaign centre in Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square, said they are optimistic. The Moussa campaign is a swirl of activity organising ten public rallies in different provinces to get the word out about Moussa.

Adel Esmat, spokesman of the Moussa campaign, said the aim is to engage directly with the Egyptian electorate.

“We will make direct contact with voters to present our candidate’s platform,” Esmat said. “Our candidate has a strong record as party chief and we want to make this record clear to everybody.”

One of the problems facing Moussa is that few Egyptians know his name, let alone recognise his face. Al-Ghad has no members in parliament and has been largely sidelined in recent years.

Moussa became party leader in 2005, winning a leadership contest over former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, a liberal opposition figure in voluntary exile in Turkey.

Moussa, a civil engineer and a supporter of Sisi before declaring his election bid, is depending on backing from relatives, party members and the Federation of Arab Tribes, a union headed by Moussa that includes tens of thousands of tribesmen across the country.

Sisi is a popular figure in Egypt, despite international criticism over Cairo’s heavy-handed crackdown on the opposition which has seen better-known opposition candidates back a boycott of the elections.

Those potential Sisi challengers included former Chief of Staff Sami Anan and former leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who were detained before candidacies were formalised. Former MP Anwar Esmat Sadat and popular human rights lawyer Khalid Ali withdrew their presidential candidacies, citing alleged unfair conditions.

Security remains a major issue, with Egypt involved in a large military operation against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere in the country. ISIS threatened to retaliate by targeting polling stations and voters.

Sisi has not explicitly campaigned for re-election but his appearances on television and in public as president, inaugurating projects and opening facilities, served to bolster his image.

National television broadcast footage of Sisi’s inauguration of a Sinai army command centre, east of the Suez Canal on February 25 showed the president using the ceremonies to warn against terrorist groups trying to divide and destroy Egypt.

“The terrorists and their backers have been planning for this for a long time,” Sisi, dressed in military fatigues, said. “We will not allow anybody to destabilise our country again.”

Inside research centres and intellectual circles, analysts said Sisi, a former army chief of staff, is considered a bulwark against Islamist terrorism.

“Almost everybody knows the result of the elections beforehand,” said Ahmed Youssef, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Sisi has a record difficult to beat, not only for Moussa but for any other candidate, particularly now when most of the people want security and a functioning economy.”