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    HomeWorldPresident Abdel Fatah El-Sisi wins reelection, but faces serious challenges

    President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi wins reelection, but faces serious challenges

    CAIRO — President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi coasted to victory in Egypt’s presidential election this month, clinching a third term in a vote whose outcome was predetermined but which was hailed by supporters as a clear mandate for six more years of iron-fisted rule, even as the country contends with a collapsing economy and a war raging next door.

    Sisi, a strongman and former general who rose to power after a coup in 2013, received nearly 90 percent of the vote, election officials announced at a news conference Monday. The handful of little-known candidates who ran against him — none of whom posed a credible challenge — received about 10 percent of the vote between them.

    At just under 67 percent, according to the National Election Authority, turnout was higher than in 2014 and 2018. Ahmed Bendari, the body’s director, called it “unprecedented” in Egyptian history.

    Sisi has already served two four-year terms; a constitutional amendment in 2019 paved the way for him to stay in office until 2030, but he is presiding over a country that is deeply in debt, flailing economically and living next door to brutal conflict with no easy end in sight.

    What to know about Egypt’s election, expected to hand Sisi a third term

    Sisi’s only serious opponent, former parliamentarian Ahmed Tantawy, was unable to get on the ballot after supporters were blocked from endorsing him. Tantawy’s family members and campaign staff were arrested or harassed and he was indicted last month on charges rights groups described as politically motivated.

    Egyptian media, almost entirely state-affiliated, touted Sisi’s accomplishments while giving little airtime to his three challengers. Most voters interviewed across the Egyptian capital during the three-day voting period last week had never heard of the other candidates.

    For Sisi and his backers, it was all about the show.

    Billboards bearing his face alongside the slogans “All of us are with you” and “Beloved of the Egyptians” loomed above Cairo’s maze of highways ahead of the vote. His campaign banners lined most major streets.

    At a polling site in Sayeda Zeinab, a working-class neighborhood in central Cairo, volunteers wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the president’s face corralled voters into a line. Near Tahrir Square, the center of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, young men and women marched down a wide avenue behind “Sisi for president” banners.

    Many Egyptians outside polling sites on Monday described voting as a civic duty.

    “I have to give my opinion,” said Rasha Ashour, 40, a nutrition technician from the working-class neighborhood of Basateen. “We want the country to be better so we are trying to support it to be better.”

    That meant voting for Sisi, she said.

    Walid, 58, a smartly dressed businessman who voted in downtown Cairo, insisted it was “a free and fair election.”

    “No one cheated. We voted our choice, our president,” Walid added, speaking on the condition he be identified by his first name only, for privacy reasons. “He’s done a great job. He protected our country.”

    As Egypt’s economic crisis deepens, an affordable meal is hard to find

    But plenty of Egyptians stayed at home, dismayed by sliding living standards and feeling powerless to bring about change.

    In Bulaq el-Dakrour, a lower-income neighborhood of unpaved alleyways trafficked by donkey carts, an unemployed 26-year-old leaned against the wall of a blacksmith’s shop last week and said neither he nor his friends planned to vote.

    Sisi “completely destroyed [the country], he made it very hard,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his security.

    “No one is voting,” he added. “Those who go, go for the money. I don’t know what they give them, but they must be giving them money.”

    Washington Post reporters saw a group of women crowding around a man inside one polling area in central Cairo asking how to redeem their coupons.

    A 40-year-old teacher in Helwan, a southern suburb of Cairo, told The Post she hadn’t wanted to vote. But her employer forced teachers at her public school to board buses to the polls this week. After she cast her ballot, local officials gave her and others who could prove they had voted 200 pounds, about $6.

    The teacher said colleagues who remained behind were told they would be reported to the education authority, denied paid leave and docked three days’ pay.

    “It’s elections by force,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety.

    Diaa Rashwan, the head of the State Information Service, said there was no evidence of any money or goods being exchanged for voting and such practices were a criminal offense under Egyptian law.

    There were “no violations in the election process,” Hazem Badawy of the National Election Authority said at the news conference Monday.

    For most Egyptians interviewed by The Post, their willingness to cast a ballot appeared to stem less from love of the president than from a deep fear that has taken hold here since Oct. 7, when the Hamas assault on Israel triggered the war in neighboring Gaza.

    As Israel bombards Gaza, killing thousands of civilians, public anger at Israel and its Western backers is mounting. Remarks by some right-wing Israeli politicians — coupled with a military assault that has pushed nearly 2 million Gazans toward the Egyptian border — have fueled fears in Egypt that Israel is trying to drive Palestinians into northern Sinai.

    As Israel pummels besieged Gaza, Egypt resists opening up to refugees

    Sisi has insisted that Egypt will not be complicit in the forced displacement of Palestinians or jeopardize its sovereignty and security. His stance earned plaudits from even some of his sharpest critics — and renewed respect from some Egyptians who had soured on him as the economy worsened.

    In Sayeda Zeinab, the war reinforced residents’ conviction that a military leader is best for Egypt, shopkeeper Adel Tawfik, 75, said.

    “His popularity was affected by the high prices, but after Gaza, they returned to support him again,” he said. “Sudan, Libya, Syria, Palestine — compared to others, we are doing better. And we are right in the middle of fire.”

    Security and stability have formed the cornerstone of Sisi’s pitch since he came to power in 2013 after a military coup ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi gambled that Egyptians and foreign backers would tolerate domestic repression, the jailing or exiling of human rights defenders, the shrinking of civic space — and even mismanagement of the economy — so long as he ensured that Egypt remained calm in a region torn apart by turmoil.

    The war in Gaza has put that argument front and center again, giving Sisi a much-needed boost.

    Higher overall turnout this time seemed to reflect “the worries of the Egyptians and the anger of the youth toward the international community,” said Noha Bakr, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

    But if winning was the easy part, Sisi faces a host of daunting challenges ahead.

    There is the immediate priority of keeping Egypt out of the Gaza war and maintaining its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, analysts said, all while trying to assuage public anguish over the suffering of Palestinians.

    The economy, heavily dependent on tourism and imports, is at its lowest point in decades, buffeted by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and now the fighting in Gaza. But analysts also point to serious structural problems, combined with reckless government spending.

    The government has borrowed heavily to finance massive infrastructure and building projects, including a $58 billion new capital in the desert outside Cairo. The military, heavily involved in the economy under Sisi, benefits from many of these projects.

    Some Egyptians say the new roads and bridges have eased congestion in greater Cairo, home to nearly a quarter of Egypt’s 105 million people. But the country’s external debt has reached nearly $165 billion — 40 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Interest payments made up 60 percent of government expenditure for the first three months of the 2023 fiscal year.

    Egypt faces looming deadlines to pay back at least $42 billion to lenders next year. It’s the second-likeliest country in the world to default on its debt payments, after Ukraine, according to a recent Bloomberg ranking.

    “Basically the entire duration of Sisi’s presidency has been an endemic series of economic crises — and it’s not just economic hardship, it’s humiliation,” said Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “While all this is happening, Egyptians are watching the regime enrich itself.”

    Inflation stands at 34.6 percent. For food products, it’s nearly double. Amid a hard-currency crunch, Egyptians are hoarding dollars or selling them on the black market.

    Prices of basic commodities have soared, and poverty is on the rise. While welfare programs offer basic support to the poor, the middle class is being hollowed out. On the streets of Cairo and on popular talk shows, the cost of onions and a months-long “sugar crisis” dominate conversation.

    Many Egyptians fear an upcoming devaluation of the pound, demanded by international lenders.

    “People now expect that after he wins, the prices are going to double,” said a 47-year-old housewife and mother of three in Bulaq el-Dakrour, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety.

    She used to cook meat or chicken for her family twice a week, she said. No longer. Some of her neighbors go to bed hungry.

    “He says he takes care of women,” she said, referring to Sisi, whom many Egyptians hesitate to name publicly. “But the women here are feeling the pressure. I don’t think it will get better.”

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