Egyptians have been gripped by the dramatic start to their country’s unexpectedly early presidential election campaign.
President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s re-election – now for a six-year term – seems virtually guaranteed even as his government grapples with record inflation and massive debt.
Yet an outspoken critic, the left-wing politician and former MP Ahmed al-Tantawi, who hopes to be his main opponent, has put on a political campaign of a kind that Egypt has rarely seen in recent years.
Keen to build momentum, President Sisi hosted a huge, three-day televised conference called “Story of the Homeland” to relate his narrative of the past decade and officially announce his candidacy.
“Just as I responded to the calls of Egyptians before, today I respond to their call again, and I decided to nominate myself for you to complete the dream in a new presidential term,” Mr Sisi told the audience of officials and notables to cheers and applause.
“I call on all Egyptians to participate in this democratic environment to choose with their patriotic conscience who is worthy,” he said.
On cue, large crowds appeared in a show of support in cities across Egypt.
Thousands jammed into a square in Giza, enthusiastically waving flags. While many there were drawn from nearby poor neighbourhoods, attracted by the prospect of a party with well-known singers, others told the BBC they were government workers instructed to attend.
As Egypt’s popular but tightly controlled TV talk shows focused on these pictures, videos were also shared on social media of small protests, most notably in the small coastal city of Marsa Matrouh, where banners showing the president were torn down and destroyed.
Several Arabic hashtags were soon trending. Not just “Sisi” with calls for a “million man” march to back him, but also “Leave, loser”, quickly drawing thousands of reposts.
The decision to schedule the election for 10-12 December – months earlier than necessary – appears to be linked to Egypt’s severe economic crisis, with experts predicting another tough decision to devalue the currency is on the cards next year.
At this week’s conference, held in Egypt’s new administrative capital – a costly megaproject of Mr Sisi’s government being built in the desert east of Cairo – the president called on ordinary people to accept sacrifices to deal with soaring prices.
“Don’t you Egyptians dare say you would rather eat than build and progress,” he said. “If the price of the nation’s progress and prosperity is to go hungry and thirsty, then let us not eat or drink.”
His rival, Ahmed al-Tantawi, swiftly condemned those comments as “dangerous” and proof of an “inhumane approach”, saying Egyptians were being asked “to endure hunger and deprivation”.
He criticised Mr Sisi, saying his vision of development and progress was building “towering buildings, cities and palaces in the desert” rather than giving people “a decent life”, with access to good education and healthcare.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Tantawi – the most prominent of a handful of presidential hopefuls – will make the race.
Already, the Canada-based internet watchdog CitizenLab says his phone has been targeted with sophisticated spyware.
He has also complained that ordinary Egyptians have struggled to register their support for his candidacy at public notary offices. Some claim they were attacked by pro-government thugs.
Prospective candidates need the signatures of 25,000 people from 15 different governorates to endorse them, or the backing of 20 MPs in a parliament that leans heavily in Mr Sisi’s favour.
Egypt’s National Election Authority maintains it is investigating the complaints and opening notary offices for longer.
President Sisi, a former army chief, led the military’s ousting of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood president in 2013, after one year of his rule, following widespread street protests.
He went on to win presidential elections with 97% of the vote in 2014 and 2018. In 2019, changes were made to the constitution – approved by a referendum – giving him two extra years in power and permitting him to run for a third, six-year term.
Mr Sisi’s time in office has seen an outright ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, which was long the country’s most powerful opposition force, with its leaders jailed or in exile.
Activists say that altogether tens of thousands of government critics have been imprisoned – mostly Islamists but also secular activists, including many involved in the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak.
Mr Sisi was once seen as a guarantor of stability after years of turmoil in Egypt, and he successfully projected a strongman image. However, he has lost popularity as the country’s economic woes have deepened.
After years battling austerity, Egypt – a major wheat importer – was hit hard by the fallout of the war in Ukraine. The currency has been devalued three times since the start of last year, losing more than half of its value against the dollar. In August, inflation reached a peak of just under 40%.
In his speeches, the president has tried to cast this year’s election as the chance for a fresh start. “We are on the cusp of our new republic, which seeks to complete the process of the state’s survival and rebuild it on the foundations of modernity and democracy,” he declared.
Despite the lofty rhetoric and an eventful start, many Egyptians are only too aware that this election campaign is unlikely to bring change, only more painful belt-tightening.