Egyptians fixated on Gaza war see El Sisi posters as reminder of upcoming vote

Hurt yet captivated by the Gaza war, Egyptians put little stock in upcoming presidential election where outcome is virtually a foregone conclusion

Billboards bearing the image of Abdel Fattah El Sisi line a road in the New Cairo district of the Egyptian capital. Bloomberg
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Eclipsed by the war in neighbouring Gaza, hundreds of identical images of a smiling Abdel Fattah El Sisi across Egypt's sprawling capital are one of few reminders that Egyptians begin to vote this weekend.

In doing so, they will chose their leader for the next six years.

A preoccupation with the Gaza war and the widely shared realisation that the vote's result is virtually a foregone conclusion help to explain the apparent apathy.

Mr El Sisi, seeking a third term in office, is running against three little-known politicians who may at best attract about 10 per cent of the vote between them. Barring unforeseen circumstances, his win will take to 16 years the time he will have served in office.

Right now, he is at the end of a six-year term he won in 2018.

Ahmed El Tantawy, a former legislator and critic of Mr El Sisi, denied the election any semblance of a genuine contest when he dropped out of the race. He ended campaigning amid claims of government intimidation and harassment that prevented him from formally entering the contest.

He and more than 20 of his supporters and campaign workers now face trial on forgery charges.

“People are indifferent to the election because everyone knows El Sisi will win,” said Shady Lewis Botros, a prize-winning novelist and political commentator.

“The only chance this election had to be interesting was El Tantawy but he could not even run.”

The image of the Egyptian leader in a dark blue jacket and a sky blue tie is splashed on giant billboards and banners that have sprung up in the past few weeks throughout Cairo, a city of 20 million people. Alongside the images are expressions of support including “We are all with you!” “The darling of Egyptians!” or “With you, with one heart and one soul!”

“I swear by God, you don't need all these banners,” declares a widely shared satirical post on Facebook that addresses Mr El Sisi.

“Pasha, you're the only one we know!” it said, using the Ottoman-era title reserved for top political or military personalities, which remains alive to this day.

Egyptians living abroad will cast their ballots at their country's diplomatic missions on December 1, 2 and 3. At home, Egyptians will vote on December 10, 11 and 12.

But it is not just the Gaza war that's distracting Egyptians from the election, it is the wider conflict.

In a response not seen in decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Egyptians have flooded social media platforms with messages of support for the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel, a country that fought Egypt in four full-fledged wars between 1948 and 1973.

Images of Palestinian children killed in Israel's bombardment of Gaza are everywhere on social media. The word genocide is freely used to describe what Israel has done in Gaza since the war broke out, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is labelled a war criminal.

Reels of the huge pro-Palestinian rallies in places such as London and Washington are widely shared, so is the video of a Palestinian youth doing a Native American dance to make the point that Palestinians, like indigenous Americans before them, have been subjected to genocide.

Egyptians are plastering stickers of Palestine's red, black and green flag on their cars. The Palestinian colours are also sold on street corners. Some in Cairo took up wearing the hallmark black-and-white Palestinian kaffiyeh scarf as a show of solidarity.

On social media, Abu Obeida, the masked spokesman for Hamas's military wing, has had his televised speeches widely shared by many Egyptians, taken in by what they see as his charismatic delivery and rhetoric.

The boycott of western brands, especially American, has also gained unexpected traction.

These pro-Palestinian sentiments are matched by unusually harsh rhetoric from the state now when talking about Israel's actions in Gaza.

Addressing a pro-Palestinian rally last weekend, Mr El Sisi accused Israel of war crimes and cautioned against what he said was its scheme to force Gaza Strip's 2.3 million residents to flee their homes to Egypt.

“The Palestinian issue is at a very dangerous and delicate juncture amid a mindless and inhumane escalation that follows a policy of collective punishment and massacres,” he said.

Delivering a warning to Israel, he said no one should take his calm demeanour as a sign of weakness.

“There will be no eviction! There will be no eviction from the Gaza Strip to Egypt. To us, this is a red line,” he told thousands of supporters.

The admiration Egyptians have for Hamas is in sharp contrast to the group's demonisation by authorities nearly 13 years ago, when it was accused of sending armed operatives into Egypt to break open prisons housing leaders of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, amid a popular uprising against autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.

“Hamas now is the hero and Egyptians feel their support for it gives them the feeling of being part of something noble like fighting a brutal occupier,” said Botros, the novelist. “Moreover, there is the religious bond. Hamas is, after all, an Islamist organisation.”

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Under the treaty, Israel handed back to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, a vast and rugged area of deserts and mountains sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

Israel captured Sinai in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war along with Syria's Golan Heights, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Egypt fears that one objective of Israel's onslaught in Gaza beside annihilating Hamas is to push as many of the enclave's residents as possible into Sinai, a move that Cairo believes to be a threat to its national security.

Already, Israel, whose bombardment has killed about 15,000 Palestinians in Gaza, has forced about 1.7 million to flee their homes in northern Gaza to the south of the strip close to Egypt.

Mr El Sisi's threatening rhetoric and the outpouring of popular support for the Palestinians has highlighted what many already knew: peace with Israel remains fragile more than 40 years after the treaty was signed. Moreover, the Gaza war appears to have rekindled hostility towards Israel, still viewed by many Egyptians as their country's number one enemy.

“To this day, the people of Egypt continue to oppose full normalisation with Israel and I believe Egypt remains in Israel's military doctrine the number one threat that it never stopped trying to weaken and destabilise,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, a prominent Egyptian author and sociopolitical scientist.

Updated: November 30, 2023, 2:32 AM