Even with victory for the incumbent Abdel Fattah El-Sisi almost certain, the streets of Egypt are adorned with posters urging residents to participate in this month’s presidential election.
El-Sisi will contest the March 26-28 poll against just one rival, Musa Mustafa Musa — a political unknown whose candidacy is viewed with cynicism among voters here.
Amid pressure on the president’s critics in the media, and the arrest of several of El-Sisi’s opponents, the posters and billboards looking out over Cairo’s ramshackle neighborhoods appear to be a rare sign of democracy in action.
But despite their catchy slogans, colorful pictures and stylish graphics, the advertisements are struggling to capture the imaginations of Egyptians, most of whom are accustomed to one-sided elections and already see the result of this month’s poll as a foregone conclusion.
In two typical instances from the campaigns, a smiling El-Sisi gazes out from a picture featuring the rallying cry, “We are all behind you for the sake of Egypt.” In contrast, Musa frowns from one of his posters alongside the rather more bland catchphrase, “We will continue … we will develop … Egypt will be better.”
As far as people in Cairo are concerned, adverts like these are yet more evidence that the country is going through the motions in the build-up to the vote.
One local journalist, Hazem Ghorab, summed up the feelings of many Egyptians when he told Arab News the campaign posters were a “show.” The idea that the election is genuinely competitive “is simply a joke,” he said.
The billboards and banners have, however, benefited local printing firms, with money pouring in to businesses that usually struggle for trade.
Mohammed Mokhtar, a printshop owner in downtown Cairo, told Arab News he had taken on several new staff since the election campaign began. “This is the time where we really get to work,” he said.
While El-Sisi does enjoy strong support among a significant share of the population, he has also moved to diminish the opposition. The president has warned that anyone who insults the armed forces and police is guilty of “high treason.” Several prospective election candidates, including a former chief of staff, Sami Anan, have been arrested.
El-Sisi was minister of defense before coming to power in 2013, when the military toppled the elected Muslim Brotherhood government on the back of vast public protests sparked by declining living standards and unpopular political reforms. He was subsequently elected in 2014 with almost 97 percent of the vote and a similar landslide is expected this time.
Many in the Arab world’s most populous county see his leadership as essential to battling an extremist insurgency in Sinai and rebuilding an economy battered by the Arab Spring and its aftermath.
Even some of the president’s most passionate supporters therefore see his re-election as a formality, with Egyptians abroad due to vote this Friday.
Spending for the month-long campaign is officially capped at $1.1 million but businessmen and members of Parliament have taken it upon themselves to pay for their own adverts backing El-Sisi. Few of them are as enthusiastic about Musa, his one remaining challenger.
As leader of the small Ghad, or “Tomorrow,” party, Musa was a relatively obscure figure on Egypt’s political scene until this election.
Prior to announcing his intention to run in late January, he was an ardent admirer of El-Sisi, proclaiming his allegiance to the incumbent with a Facebook post saying, “We support you for another presidential term.”
This image has since been gleefully shared among voters happy to mock the nature of the election, even if they are unwilling to directly criticize the government for undermining the democratic process.
In the latest crackdown on the media before the vote, on Monday Egypt’s chief prosecutor published a list of telephone numbers that citizens can contact if they want to complain about news reports they deem to be undermining national security or “hurting national interests.”