In Egypt's election, turnout provides the only suspense

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In Egypt's election, turnout provides the only suspense
FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2017 file photo, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attends a military ceremony in the courtyard at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, France. On March 26-28, 2018 a Presidential election will be held in Egypt, with el-Sissi virtually guaranteed to win. (Charles Platiau, Pool via AP, File)

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots.

Authorities hope enough people will vote in the three-day balloting for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to lend legitimacy to an election in which the only other candidate is an obscure politician who has made no effort to challenge him.

The streets of Cairo are lined with campaign banners and posters extolling el-Sissi, most put up by businessmen or organizations hoping to advertise their support. El-Sissi has done little in the way of traditional campaigning, and has not publicly mentioned his ostensive challenger, Moussa Mustafa Moussa.

A number of other presidential hopefuls stepped forward earlier this year, including some who might have attracted a sizable protest vote. But they were all either arrested or pressured to withdraw, making this the least competitive election since the 2011 uprising raised hopes of democratic change.

“The result of the election is already known, so a high turnout is the real prize here, which the regime will capitalize on,” said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

During the official campaign period, instead of addressing any of the scores of rallies held by his supporters or appearing in TV ads, el-Sissi has opted for carefully scripted and televised functions. The former general has donned his military fatigues on recent occasions, highlighting the war on Islamic extremists and perhaps reminding voters that he led the military overthrow of a divisive Islamist president in the summer of 2013.

Many Egyptians welcomed the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group and for a time el-Sissi enjoyed a wave of popular support bordering on hysteria, with downtown shops selling chocolates with his portrait on them.

But that aura has faded over the last four years, which could explain a clampdown ahead of the election on the media and critics.

In the Sinai Peninsula, an insurgency that gained strength after Morsi’s overthrow and is now led by the Islamic State group has only grown more ferocious, with regular attacks on security forces and deadly church bombings. An assault on a mosque in November killed more than 300 people — the worst terror attack in Egypt’s modern history.

The government has meanwhile enacted a series of long-overdue economic reforms — including painful subsidy cuts and the floatation of the currency. That improved the investment climate and earned Egypt a billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund. But the austerity measures sent prices soaring, exacting a heavy toll on ordinary Egyptians, especially the more than 25 percent living below the poverty line.

If there have been few public signs of discontent, it is likely because of a massive crackdown on dissent.

Thousands of Islamists and several leading secular activists have been jailed, and unauthorized protests have been outlawed. The media is dominated by virulently pro-government commentators and hundreds of websites have been blocked. Independent journalists have been arrested or deported. In late February, authorities expelled The Times of London correspondent Bel Trew, arresting her after she conducted an interview in Cairo’s central Shoubra district, saying she did not have valid accreditation and was filming without a permit.

El-Sissi cultivates the image of a folksy populist, going on at length about his devotion to God, his reverence for his late mother, and his love for Egypt. In a one-hour puff piece TV interview, el-Sissi said he wished he had one or two trillion dollars of his own money that he could spend on modernizing the country.

At a ceremony commemorating soldiers who fell in battle fighting Islamic militants, he appeared close to tears as he listened to the stories of widows and mothers. Two children who lost their fathers, and who were outfitted in military uniforms, sat on his lap. He was later photographed feeding them cake.

In the televised interview, el-Sissi insisted that the lack of candidates was “completely not my fault.”

“Really, I swear, I wish there were one or two or even 10 of the best people and you would get to choose whoever you want,” he said. “We are just not ready.”

At a ceremony last week in honor of Mother’s Day, celebrated at the start of spring in Egypt, el-Sissi urged people to cast ballots, saying it would be a “great and respectable thing” even if they voted “no.” It was probably a slip of the tongue, but pointed to the reality of the election, which resembles the yes-or-no referendums held by Mubarak and other Arab autocrats going back decades.

“I need every woman, mother and sister, please. I won’t tell you it’s for my sake, but it’s for the sake of our country,” he said.