- - Monday, February 26, 2018

CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s purge of his leading rivals ahead of the country’s election next month looks like a Middle Eastern autocrat’s standard move, but it has watchers puzzled: The former army general is sidelining opponents and fueling a boycott of the vote while polls say he has deep popular support and would win a free and fair election in a walk.

Instead, the government’s hard line has alienated many and led international observers to say there is no chance that the three-day election starting March 26 will be free and fair. Many Egyptian activists are calling for an election boycott after the imprisonment of three leading presidential candidates and the withdrawals of four.

Only one nominal opponent, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, the leader of the Ghad Party who previously endorsed the president for a second term, will run against Mr. el-Sissi, and many think he was tacitly recruited to run to avoid the embarrassment for the government of a one-candidate race.

The handling of the race is all the more unusual because of a fundamental fact that even critics of Mr. el-Sissi, who has cultivated close ties to President Trump, concede. Large blocs of voters remain devoted to the president, motivated more by a the government’s promises of stability and security over the prospect of political freedoms and civil liberties.

For those Egyptian voters, say analysts, Mr. el-Sissi is a hero to millions.

“Look at the giant projects he got done in just four years: new cities, power plants and expanding the Suez Canal,” said Raafat Tawfik, a middle school history teacher in Assiut, an Upper Egyptian city 230 miles south of Cairo. Mr. el-Sissi “saved us from the Muslim Brotherhood and put his life on the line for this country.”

His solid base includes Egypt’s massive bloc of 26 million state employees, including nearly 1.5 million teachers, a group that is more than double their American counterpart. They are particularly receptive to the president’s twin themes of doubling down on security and government-directed economic development.

Another base for the president is the community of 10 million Coptic Christians. Islamic State terrorist attacks on Egyptian churches effectively have hardened the attachment of this minority group to Mr. el-Sissi, a former head of military intelligence and army field marshal.

“The president made Christmas special this year despite the terror attacks,” said Tag Girgis, a 53-year-old real estate developer who praised the president for keeping his promise to erect a massive church in the New Administrative Capital — a $45 billion project rapidly rising up in the desert 28 miles east of Cairo.

Mr. Girgis said business at his vacation rentals at the Red Sea resort of Hurghada is beginning to pick up after a seven-year slump that began with the 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian president toppled in the Arab Spring uprisings, and the 2013 removal of President Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The number of foreign visitors continued to fall after Russia suspended flights to Egypt in the wake of the October 2015 downing of a St. Petersburg-bound passenger jet taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed all 224 people on board. Plans to resume flights to Russia this month have been delayed until April.

“My occupancy rate is now 60 percent, and that’s an improvement over last year,” said Mr. Girgis. “The decline in the Russian tourism sector is responsible for our problem, not el-Sissi.”

The incumbent does have vulnerabilities. Security forces have yet to get a handle on violence against Copts or an active Islamic State presence in Sinai, where seven government troops were killed in the latest operation against militants that started Feb. 9. Nationalists continue to question the el-Sissi government’s April 2016 decision to cede two barren but strategically placed islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba to Saudi Arabia, reportedly in exchange for Saudi financial and security support.

More than a dozen domestic and international groups, including Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists, have slammed the government’s repression ahead of the vote.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, on a visit to Cairo this month, said Washington would like a fair and democratic process. “We have always advocated for free and fair elections, transparent elections, not just for Egypt but in any country,” Mr. Tillerson said.

Targeting demographics

Despite the absence of real competition, the re-election campaign is out in full force for the president. Egyptian movie stars and soccer players are appearing in videos to drum up support for Mr. el-Sissi, while old-fashioned ward politics — including union-backed turnout drives and financial incentives for signing endorsements of the president — are backing the president, as are appeals directed at specific demographic groups.

Like Coptic Christians and civil servants, women are being organized to turn out for Mr. el-Sissi’s re-election, and many say they are enthusiastic about it.

“It’s enough that I can walk down the street and feel safe — previously we could not,” said Ayda Hassan, a 39-year-old administrator at the Al-Massala Preparatory Girls School in northern Cairo, who praised the government’s stepped-up campaign against sexual harassment on Egyptian streets, a major issue for women.

“When we look at the countries around us, we will say, ‘Praise be to God. We are much better off than them,’” the administrator said.

Four days before the formal announcement of his candidacy, Mr. el-Sissi moved to add two women to his 33-member Cabinet, bringing the percentage of female ministers to just over 18 percent — slightly edging out the proportion in neighboring Israel, which stands at four out of 23, or 17 percent.

“The participation rate of Egyptian women in the upcoming election will be unprecedented,” predicted Manal Al-Absi, president of the Arab Academy for Leadership Development, a Cairo nonprofit that provides executive skills training. “And they support the president for providing real solutions that get done by the promised deadlines.”

The president’s supporters often praise Mr. el-Sissi as they compare what they view as Egypt’s relative stability with the carnage caused by wars and terrorism in Syria, Iraq and neighboring Libya.

Mr. el-Sissi’s campaign knows that with just one obscure contender, he needs to meet or exceed 47 percent of the 54 million voter turnout of the 2014 ballot that brought him to the presidency to validate the claim that he retains the nation’s loyalty.

Just to make sure, there is a Plan B. In the poorer parts of Egypt’s countryside, a provision that fines citizens 500 Egyptian pounds — about $28 — for failing to show up at polling stations is as likely to drive turnout as passion for the candidates.

“El-Sissi is doing an awesome job on security, but because of the higher prices now for crop fertilizer, I’m not so happy about my money situation,” said Ramsis Al Ouny, a farmer in the rural Sohag governorate, about 300 miles south of Cairo. “I’m going to vote for the winner, el-Sissi, and at the same time make sure to avoid that 500-pound fee for not showing up.”

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