(Bloomberg) -- Outside one Cairo polling station on Monday, a group of young men wore identical white T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Egypt First: Go and Participate.” At others, voters were promised free food and juice.
On day one of Egypt’s 72-hour presidential election, authorities were scrambling to ensure a healthy turnout amid plenty of reasons for apathy. The sole challenger to incumbent Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is a supporter of the president and didn’t even bother to campaign in earnest. While for millions of poor Egyptians, El-Sisi’s vision of economic hardship now in return for a better future is a hard sell.
“Where are the youth?” said Mohamed Barakat, a retired lawyer, as he waited to cast his vote in a line dominated by people well over middle age. “I’ll go to the coffee shop after I finish voting and they’ll be sitting there.”
The length of voting queues will be the true litmus test of a race where all other potential presidential hopefuls -- including two former senior generals -- have either been arrested, barred from running or dropped out citing an undemocratic climate. All but assured a second, four-year term, El-Sisi wants a mandate to continue with reforms that have netted results -- albeit not the ones that resonate most loudly among the masses.
After teetering on the brink of collapse, Egypt’s economy is growing at its fastest pace since the 2011 uprising. The country secured a $12 billion International Monetary Fund loan. Foreign reserves have surged to a record after steep subsidy cuts and the lifting of currency controls. And from a new capital to an expanded Suez Canal, El-Sisi has sought to build a legacy as a statesman who saved Egypt from Islamist rule and restored its role as a regional power.
If he pushes Egyptians much harder, however, El-Sisi could be remembered as the leader who broke them.
Surging energy prices and a pound that weakened after currency controls were lifted pushed inflation above 30 percent for much of the past year. The mega-projects seem a world away from teeming neighborhoods where many still struggle to find well-paid jobs.
In a recent campaign video, El-Sisi acknowledged the toll. “To the greatest possible extent, we try to ensure that the measures taken don’t break the citizen’s back,” he said. “They exhaust him, but don’t break his back.”
Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, speaking to reporters on Monday, said that the “difficult period had passed peacefully, and there’s a noticeable improvement in the economy.” The election provided critics with a chance to make themselves heard, he said.
Samia El-Sayed, a 50-year-old housewife voting in the low-income Giza neighborhood of Imbaba, had few doubts. “We will stand beside our army and our president, no matter what,” she said. “We don’t care about economy problems. We will withstand anything and, God willing, all the projects will pay off.”
With some of the toughest steps already taken, inflation is beginning to recede, allowing the central bank to cut interest rates that had made it prohibitively expensive for companies to borrow. Unemployment shifted lower in the last quarter of 2017 to 11.3 percent compared to more than 13 percent when El-Sisi took office.
Officials say the results vindicate the economic reform program developed by El-Sisi, and point to the need for more of the same in his second term.
The president has also unleashed a crackdown on dissent that has been roundly condemned by human rights groups, and shows no sign on abating. It could be storing up problems, especially if the economic recovery stutters.
The “narrowing of political space is highly likely to fuel popular discontent, and -- although not our core view -- should economic improvements fail to meet popular expectations over the years ahead, then the risk of widespread unrest will rise,” Fitch unit BMI Research said in an emailed report.
In a report released in September, the IMF said Egypt needed to limit the military’s involvement in commerce and allow the private sector to flourish. Much of the foreign money netted from the measures introduced over the past two years have gone into debt or stocks instead of job-creating investments.
Samir Radwan, a former finance minister, said Egypt should learn from its pre-2011 experience and aim to limit inequalities that may lead to public anger.
“We are facing a similar situation as we did in 2010, when economic indicators were very good but there was poor income distribution and increased poverty,” he said. “With his second term, El-Sisi has a golden opportunity to focus on job-creation because if the current trend continues, stability and social peace will be threatened.”
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