As Al-Sisi focuses his election campaign on the economy and anti-terrorism, the opposition calls for a boycott

Egyptians choose a president at the end of March. The incumbent is the frontrunner, and faces no real challenger. The opposition has called for a boycott. Al-Sisi reiterated his support for large-scale infrastructure projects and investments in the energy sector. The role of Islam and the war on extremism remain high on the agenda.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – Corruption, economic crisis, the war on extremism, and the revival of tourism, a key sector that has long been in trouble due to the wave of violence that has hit the country, are some of the issues at the centre of Egypt’s presidential campaign.

The election is set for late March, and the incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former general, is well ahead in the polls. So far, no other major candidate has emerged to contest his lead. If he is elected, this will be his second mandate.

The first round of voting will take place between 26 to 28 March. Should no one win an outright majority, a runoff will be held from 19 to 21 April for Egyptians living abroad and from 24 to 26 April at home. The winner will be announced on 2 April in case a first-round victory, or on 1st May in case of a second round.

Al-Sisi warned his political opponents, who have threatened to boycott the poll. Officially two other candidates are in the running: one of them is Mousa Mustafa Mousa, a former al-Sisi loyal supporter, who is no real threat.

Other possible challengers dropped out as a result of intimidation or after receiving threats of detention.

In response to the campaign of government repression, some opposition parties and at least 150 of the country’s leading figures have called for a boycott of the polls under the slogan "Stay Home", including Hamdeen Sabahi, who ran against al-Sisi in the 2014 elections. He spoke of "brutal tyranny of power".

Among those who recently pulled out are former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Anwar al Sadat, nephew of President Sadat (who was killed in 1981). He too gave up at the last moment because of a climate was not conducive to campaigning.

A former army chief of staff, General Sami Hafez Annan, was arrested on 23 January for breaching election rules. Lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Ali, who has criticised the regime in the past, also quit the race.

Some sources believe that al-Sisi wants to win big to be able to change the constitution, and remove terms limitations. Others have complained of a growing climate of repression and intolerance towards dissidents.

Still, a large majority in the population, not only among the media and mainstream commentators, view the incumbent  as the one who can solve Egypt’s economic and political woes, including in terms of democracy and rights.

Whatever the challenges, Egypt’s next president will face two major crises: the economy and Islamic terrorism.

For years, the country has been the scene of attacks and violence, which has also affected its Coptic Christian minority.

In March last year, hundreds of families were forced to abandon their homes and properties in al-Arish. On 29 December, eight Christians were killed in a gunfight at the entrance of Mar Mina church, some 30 km south of the Egyptian capital.

In a recent public statement, al-Sisi – who in principle defends religious freedom – has reiterated his maximum commitment to a civilised and modern nation, this despite criticism of his policies as non-democratic.

In his favour, he can point to the country’s improved international standing, particularly in the Middle East, and stronger relations with the United States. Against him are increased tensions with Turkey, Qatar and Sudan (which are close to the Muslim Brotherhood).

In economic matters, despite inflation and a rising population, al-Sisi renewed his support for mega projects in infrastructure and the energy sector. These include the opening of the economic zone in the Suez Canal and the exploitation of gas deposits off the coast, especially the Zohr field (discovered in 2015), which is currently being developed in partnership with Italian oil and gas giant Eni.

Italy and Egypt have also developed closer ties over the past two years in spite of tensions caused by the murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian researcher killed in January 2016 under mysterious circumstances and with the possible involvement of Egyptian authorities.

Al-Sisi himself spoke recently about the affair during the inauguration of Zohr field saying that Egypt would not stop looking for the criminals who killed the young man until they are handed over to the authorities. (DS)