Calm and relaxed ahead of the presidential poll, Cairo is festooned with banners bearing the portrait of candidate Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the presumed winner. A young woman gathers a bouquet of Egyptian flags from a bucket at a corner shop, while civil servants prepare polling stations at the fine arts academy in leafy Zamalek.
Since the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egyptians have cast ballots in three constitutional referenda and elections for the upper and lower houses of parliament and a president, nine popular consultations counting run-offs and multiple rounds. This is the 10th presidential contest, pitting the former army chief against veteran opposition figure Hamdeen Sabahi, both claiming the mantle of president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the colonel who toppled British- backed King Farouk in 1952, launching a revolution that did not achieve its promise. A cynical friend remarked, "Nasser is still ruling from his tomb".
Economy in crisis However, he inherited a vibrant economy and a population of 20 million. Today the economy is in crisis and the estimated population is 90 million, a quarter under the age of 15.
According to the roadmap drawn up after the country's first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood veteran, was deposed last July, a parliamentary election was supposed to precede the presidential poll, but this was reversed by the interim government. Parliament is set to be chosen before the end of the year.
The turnout in the 2012 presidential election was 52 per cent, five times the estimated participation in the elections held during latter years of the 30-year reign of Mubarak. Morsi won by 52 per cent against a former regime loyalist to become Egypt’s sixth president.
In a televised message to the nation, Sisi called on Egyptians to vote. A high turnout will confer legitimacy on a vote that will place the final seal on the overthrow of Morsi. Several sources say that once a new president and parliament are installed, the Brotherhood’s claim to legitimacy, based on the 2011-12 elections for parliament and president, will be invalidated.
While local polls show Sisi to be the overwhelming popular choice, a recent opinion survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre involving 1,000 adults across Egypt showed that only 54 per cent of Egyptians favoured Sisi and 45 per cent viewed him unfavourably. Some 40 per cent still had a positive view of the Brotherhood.
However, a European diplomat who has served here many years argued that Sisi has far more backing and the figure for the Brotherhood is unrealistically high, as its traditional base of support of about 15-20 per cent has eroded due to the movement’s disruptive and deadly protest campaign. Egyptians consulted agree with his assessment. Analyst Hisham Kassem says, “Sisi mania exists outside the army camps. Inside he is not seen as a hero.”
Democracy activist and author Adhaf Soueif argues turnout will be high, but “the young people are very disappointed” over the failure of the 2011 revolution to achieve its aims. She predicted “old people will vote rather than young”, and that Sisi will win by a large margin.
“It’s a question of numbers. The problem is all the people who will not come out. The protest vote should be for Sabahi. If everybody boycotts, [Sisi] will get 95 per cent and it looks like a landslide. If he wins 70 per cent it is better.” The boycott by the Brotherhood and its allies boosts Sisi’s numbers.
Soueif said she will vote for Sabahi. “A country with Hamdeen as head would look better. His ideas are fine, the group around him are solid.” By conducting a vigorous campaign he has positioned himself to head the opposition.
Nothing new "Sisi has nothing new to offer . . . there is no sign that he will adopt a radically different approach. I don't think the country can support the continuation of the old system. We need radically new ideas based on sustainability and self-reliance."
She blames the Brotherhood for giving the government “an excuse to crack down on protests” by liberals like her nephew Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leader of the 2011 uprising, who is facing trial charged with violating a ban on unauthorised demonstrations by staging a protest against military court trials for civilians.
Kassem remains cautiously optimistic in spite of the repressive measures the state has adopted towards dissent.
“We will not relapse into authoritarianism now. There is no going back.”