(Bloomberg) -- Egyptians began voting Sunday in a three-day-long election, with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi all but certain to win a third term even as the North African nation grapples with its worst economic crisis in years.
Polls opened at 9 a.m. local time and El-Sisi was shown on Egyptian TV casting his ballot around then. Government officials have encouraged a high turnout, and state television showed crowds outside polling stations waving national flags and placards, some of them dancing for the cameras and singing patriotic songs.
The most pressing issue for Egypt’s electorate is the soaring cost of living, with inflation running at almost 35% after three currency devaluations since early last year that halved the pound’s value against the dollar.
The electoral commission is expected to declare the final tally of votes on Dec. 13, with the official result due five days later. The outcome, however, is in little doubt.
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“It feels like there’s only one candidate,” said Naser, 45, who works in a restaurant in Mokattam, eastern Cairo, and asked to be identified only by his first name in order to speak freely.
After the election, another devaluation is widely foreseen with foreign-exchange shortages still acute. It could be the biggest so far, based on the local black market, where the pound trades far weaker than its official rate, and currency forwards. That may add more pain to consumers in the nation of more than 105 million, the most populous in the Middle East.
A devaluation would, however, help Egypt’s government authorities move forward with a $3 billion International Monetary Fund rescue program, and pave the way for a likely increase in the loan to over $5 billion.
The IMF has called on Egypt to let market forces have greater sway over the pound’s value to help encourage more foreign investment. While the currency trades at 30.9 per dollar officially, it changes hands at around 50 on the black market.
The country’s main stock index dipped 2% on Sunday, the first day of the working week. But it’s still up 66% this year in local currency terms — and even 33% in dollars, making it one of the world’s best performers.
The country’s desperate search for foreign exchange may be eased by its pivotal diplomatic role in the Israel-Hamas war next door.
Egypt has been the only gateway for aid to reach Gaza, and was a key player in hostage talks that allowed a truce after six weeks of fighting. Along with the IMF, the European Union has signaled its ready to accelerate financial support. Egypt is also hoping for more investment from wealthy allies in the oil-rich Gulf.
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El-Sisi, a career military officer before he came to power a decade ago amid a popular uprising against his Islamist predecessor, has three relatively low-profile challengers in the election. They are Farid Zahran, head of the opposition Social Democratic Party; Wafd Party chief Abdel-Sanad Yamama; and Hazem Omar, chairman of the Republican People’s Party.
If no one gets over 50% of the votes, there’ll be a run-off in January. But that’s an unlikely scenario in a country with little political opposition. El-Sisi got more than 90% of votes in 2014 and 2018. After amendments passed in 2019, presidential terms will last six years.
With El-Sisi facing no serious electoral threat, the focus will be on overall participation. Officials have repeatedly described voting as a national duty and a healthy turnout would be taken as giving El-Sisi a mandate to enact further large-scale reforms.
About 41% of the electorate cast a ballot in 2018 — and not everyone is motivated this time either.
“We all know what’s going to happen, so what’s the point of going to vote?” said Hisham Mohamed, a 37-year-old delivery driver. “There’s no real competition or alternative and, even if there was, whoever would come in his place would inherit a mess.”
Former bank employee Alia Hamdy said El-Sisi’s stance on Gaza had convinced her to support him. The president has called for Israel to end its bombardment and ground offensive on the Palestinian enclave. He’s also rejected suggestions Egypt host Gazan refugees, saying Israel should be the one to take them in.
“I wasn’t going to vote because I’m not obviously happy with the economic situation and I don’t agree with a lot of things,” the 56-year-old said outside a polling station in 6th of October, a satellite city west of Cairo.
But Egypt’s moves to help the Palestinians while protecting its borders and not being drawn into a broader war were “really positive,” she said. “It made me realize maybe things are not that bad.”
Other voters echoed those comments. Mohamed Gaber, a 75-year-old voting in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood, said high inflation was a global problem and not El-Sisi’s fault. He added that Egypt was much more stable than neighboring Sudan and Libya, which are mired in civil conflict, and extolled the “blessing of security.”
“We see two governments in Libya and two governments in Sudan, and we see the situation in Gaza,” said Gaber. “We don’t want to be like those countries.”
--With assistance from Abdel Latif Wahba.
(Updates with stock moves on Sunday.)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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