Israel-Hamas war supported Egyptian leader ahead of presidential vote

Israel-Hamas war supported Egyptian leader ahead of presidential vote

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi woke up on October 7 remarkably unpopular for someone considered a candidate for a third term – guaranteed by his authoritarian grip on the country to dominate elections that begin on Sunday, but badly damaged by a slow movement of economic collapse.

The weeks that followed overshadowed all that, with the war supplanting financial worries at the top of many Egyptians’ minds, on their lips and on social media. For Western partners and Persian Gulf supporters, the crisis has also highlighted Egypt’s vital role as a conduit of humanitarian aid to Gaza and a mediator between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that led the attack on Israel on October 7 and launched the attack. war.

Mr. el-Sisi, a former general with a knack for surviving lasting setbacks, appears to have benefited once again from another break, which has allowed him to position himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause at home and as an indispensable regional leader in the foreigner.

In Cairo these days, a widespread wave boycott Western companies associated with support for Israel has turned the simple act of serving a Pepsi into a serious misstep. Egyptians, struggling to support themselves after nearly two years of record inflation, have opened their wallets to help victims of the war in Gaza.

And in a country where protests have been banned for years, hundreds of people defied arrest to march in solidarity with the Palestinians.

The three-day presidential elections which began on Sunday should confirm Mr. el-Sissi’s continuation for a new six-year term: none of his three challengers has a chance of overthrowing him. With the exception of a few isolated billboards, the face that loomed this weekend on what seemed like every street in Cairo on billboards, banners and posters was that of Mr. el-Sissi, and none of the 20 eligible voters interviewed around Cairo on Sunday did not know the other candidates. .

A government press release proclaimed “unprecedentedly high turnout” as buses sponsored by pro-Sissi parties dropped off voters by the dozens at polling stations and businesses gave employees time off to vote .

However, the president will have to tread carefully, analysts and diplomats say. The economic crisis which shattered Mr. el-Sisi’s aura of invulnerability continues to bleed households, businesses and the country’s finances. Gaza or no Gaza, Egypt is expected to devalue its currency, the pound sterling, after the elections, promising further suffering for its population.

“Most of us are married and have children, and now the 200 pounds in my hand seem like 20,” said Ahmad Hassan, 43, a security guard in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba. Like many others interviewed Sunday, he said voting would be pointless. “I want change,” he said. “And with me or without me, he’ll win either way.”

While public support for the Palestinians is high, many Egyptians are alert to any signs that their government may be complicit in the suffering in Gaza, whether by accepting Israeli restrictions on aid flowing from Egypt to the territory or by proposing to move Gazans to the territory. Egypt in exchange for aid – an idea widely opposed in the Arab world.

“The government absolutely does not want to test the patience of the Egyptian people, not when it comes to Palestine,” said Hesham Sallam, an expert on Arab politics at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. from Stanford.

Like many in Cairo these days, Aya Khalil, 34, a private art teacher, said she no longer buys anything before checking its provenance against online listings of Western brands blacklisted for their support for Israel.

“Boycotting these brands is just a drop in the ocean, but I’m doing the only thing I can do,” she said.

Like many other Egyptians, she questions whether the government is doing enough to inject aid into Gaza. Egypt criticizes Israel for limiting its aid, but calls to end the 16-year joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza and for Egypt to stop giving Israel any say over the crossing Egyptian border with Gaza have multiplied in recent weeks.

Yet Egypt cannot afford to alienate Israel, with which it has developed a strong, if discreet, security partnership in the Sinai Peninsula, nor to agitate Western donors, particularly when she needs all the financial support she can get.

Many Egyptians despair over the dire economic situation and borrow month after month just to pay for the essentials. The price of sugar has recently doubled in some regions, and inflation, which already exceeds 35 percent a year, is expected to worsen if the government devalues ​​the currency.

The official value of the currency has already fallen by half since the start of the crisis in early 2022. It is worth much less on the black market.

Before Hamas’s attack on Israel, the signs of Mr. el-Sissi’s growing unpopularity were unmistakable.

A new challenger, Ahmed al-Tantawy, was gaining support across Egypt with criticism of the president that few others here had dared to voice since he began stifling dissent in recent years. Activists and liberals spoke with hope of a possible downfall of Mr. el-Sissi. Sensing the strength in numbers, many Egyptians no longer bothered to lower their voices before trashing their president.

Abroad, the International Monetary Fund and wealthy Gulf benefactors waited impatiently for Egypt to deliver on its promises of economic reform, and no calculator could imagine how the country would avoid defaulting on its $165 billion in debt. exterior.

Washington was in turmoil over accusations that Egypt bribed a top U.S. senator in exchange for official favors and sensitive information, leading Congress to block an additional $235 million in military aid for Sisi’s government .

However, a few days after the Israeli assault on Gaza in retaliation for the October 7 attacks, Mr. el-Sissi’s hesitation seemed to have stabilized.

“With every war that comes, it’s a good opportunity for him to use it as his excuse for the economic crisis,” said Salah Ali, an engineer from the southern city of Aswan employed to build which is supposed to be the president’s signature legacy. a costly new capital that helped inflate Egypt’s debt.

“What do you mean by “elections”? he added sarcastically, echoing a widely held belief that the outcome is predetermined, despite claims by a government spokesperson, Diaa Rashwan, that the vote shows Egypt is on a ” serious path towards true political pluralism.

The only challenger to Sisi who had generated some momentum, Mr. al-Tantawy, was excluded from the presidential race after government agents violently prevented his supporters from registering enough support to register him on the ballot. ballot just before the outbreak of war, according to his campaign: a headline quickly buried by the avalanche of news from Gaza. Tried on what rights groups say were trumped-up charges, he said 137 members of his campaign had been arrested.

The three other men who ended up on the electoral lists are little known. Even one who enjoys some opposition support has refrained from all but the mildest criticism of the president, perhaps fearing the fate of independent candidates in the 2018 elections, when all serious challengers of Mr. el-Sissi were arrested.

Analysts say Egypt is slow to meet the conditions of the IMF’s $3 billion bailout granted last year. But the fund’s director, Kristalina Georgieva, said it was “very likely” that the IMF would increase the loan amount anyway given the war.

The European Union, fearing a new migration crisis, is also accelerating the financing of some $10 billion for Egypt.

And liberal activists, Sisi supporters and many in between found themselves in a rare moment of unity, condemning Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza and rejecting the idea of ​​forcing Gazans onto the peninsula Egyptian Sinai, which borders the territory.

Many fear that such a move would mean the Palestinians would forever lose their own land and bring Hamas into a historically and emotionally charged part of Egypt, ultimately drawing Egypt into war with Israel.

Mr. el-Sissi was quick to read the piece.

“The aim of the stifling blockade on the Gaza Strip, which involves cutting off water and electricity and preventing the entry of aid, is to push the Palestinians towards Egypt,” Mr al said. -Sisi at a joint press conference with the German Chancellor in October. 18, one of many times he made it clear the answer was no.

“We reject the liquidation of the Palestinian cause and the forced displacement in Sinai. »

But Mr. al-Sisi was also strategically exploiting Egyptians’ fury and grief over the war, analysts and diplomats say.

On October 20, groups close to the government organized a day of nationwide pro-Palestinian protests that the government said drew hundreds of thousands of people, a figure that could not be reliably verified. independent.

Widely covered by state media, the rallies were adorned with banners featuring Mr. el-Sisi’s photo alongside images of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque — a less-than-subtle attempt to endear the cause Palestinian to that of Mr. el-Sisi.

“Without Sisi, we would be doomed,” said Reda Saad, 42, an employee of Egypt’s state gas company who brought her four children to a rally, when asked how she assessed his handling of the crisis.

She said she was “still angry” about Egypt’s economic crisis, but had put that aside in the face of Gaza’s suffering.

“That’s one thing,” she said, “and this is another.”

But dozens of people were arrested in separate demonstrations the same day in which demonstrators chanted anti-Sissi slogans, making clear that the government’s attempts to channel pro-Palestinian passions risked stoking domestic discontent.

“I’m just waiting for him to resign or leave,” said Omar, a government worker in El-Arish, near the border with Gaza. He asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid retaliation.

Until then, he said, “we will continue to live this terrible reality.”

Mourad Hijazy reports contributed.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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