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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Egypt to elect president as opposition urges boycott 

Abdel Fattah El Sisi faces one nominal opponent

In this Monday, March 19, 2018 photo, an election banner for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hangs on top of a residential building with Arabic that reads, "you are the hope," on the ring road in Cairo. Nariman El-Mofty / AP Photo
In this Monday, March 19, 2018 photo, an election banner for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hangs on top of a residential building with Arabic that reads, "you are the hope," on the ring road in Cairo. Nariman El-Mofty / AP Photo

Egyptians will choose their next president in elections starting on Monday, with the incumbent and former army general Abdel Fattah El Sisi expected to easily secure a second four-year term.

Around 60 million people are eligible to vote over three days across the Arab’s world’s most populous state. The election commission has assigned more than 103,000 poll workers, prepared over 13,000 polling stations and dispatched about 18,000 judges nationwide to conduct the ballot.

A legally required silence on public events and broadcast publicity involving Mr El Sisi and his nominal challenger, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, began on Friday, 48 hours before voting starts.

While Mr Moussa's organisation was able to get supporters - largely from backers of the small Ghad party who affiliate with various tribal and clan networks - to hang banners in Cairo bearing their candidate's portrait, embossed with his electoral logo displaying a departing airplane, even the challenger admitted his campaign never quite took off.

"Some people imagine that if they came out and showed support for me they'd be perceived as being against the state, and that's wrong," he said.

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Mr El Sisi's main election slogan - "Come down and participate" - symbolised a campaign that emphasised turnout more than choice.

A nine-minute video to that effect was aired repeatedly on government-supervised channels before the electoral silence on broadcasts came into force at midnight on Friday.

The video featured the top talent of Egyptian film and television drama, touting Mr Sisi's achievements in rebooting the economy and making the case for his re-election.

Actress Aaidah Riyadh extolled the benefits of the discovery and exploitation of a massive 30 trillion cubic feet Zohor gas field. Wafaa Amer endorsed the president's launch of the "million feddan" desert agricultural initiative and the boost it would give to Egypt's food security. And Majed El Masry explained how the president's currency reforms strengthened the country's financial standing and foreign reserves held by the central bank, leading to a declared 14 per cent increase in international investment.

Each screen star closed their segment with the "come down and participate" slogan.

But an upbeat music video featuring Emirati pop sensation Hussain Al Jassmi might be the most fondly remembered piece of electioneering from the campaign.

"That song by Al Jassmi got me singing about El Sisi and his improvements of hospitals and building factories," joked Manal Shokry, a 28-year-old Cairo hair stylist. "I guess I will vote even though it’s obvious the president doesn’t need my vote to win."

At its heart, however, the president's campaign was never primarily about promises of prosperity accompanied by catchy jingles.

Mr El Sisi extended a nationwide state of emergency on January 2, two weeks before his formal declaration that he would seek a second term.

The need for strong leadership to fight ongoing ISIL attacks on Coptic Christians and security forces always topped the agenda for the president and the wider Egyptian public.

On Friday morning Mr El Sisi, a former head of military intelligence and army field marshal, made a surprise visit to a Sinai airbase.

Egyptian television showed him in a camouflage uniform breakfasting with pilots after inspecting the military facility.

"We will be back here soon to celebrate our victory over the insurgents," he told troops. "The main task of the armed forces is to guard each and every yard of the land of Egypt."

Combating voter apathy appears the biggest challenge to the El Sisi re-election effort.

Turnout reached only 47 per cent in the the 2014 contest and this time the president is facing an organised opposition boycott of balloting.

"The most important thing to follow is the turnout, rather than what the final result will be," said political analyst Abdel-Moneim Said. "A large turnout will not only be a setback to the Muslim Brotherhood but a defeat for radical leftists who led the boycott campaign."

The stay away campaign was launched last month by Hamdeen Sabahi, Mr El Sisi’s opponent in the 2014 presidential contest, and was joined by the fragmented liberal and leftist politicians of the Egyptian Social Democratic party, Constitution Party, the Dignity Party and the Socialist Popular Alliance Party.