Egypt elections: Vulnerable women forced to sign petition endorsing Sisi
Egyptian civil servants and beneficiaries of the government's flagship cash transfer programme for the poor are being forced to submit endorsement petitions for current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to stay in office until 2030, as the country gears up for presidential elections.
The National Elections Authority (NEA) announced last month the dates for the polls, scheduled for 10-12 December, with nominations for the elections set to take place between 5-14 October.
According to the NEA's regulations, in order to be accepted as a presidential candidate, the candidate must be endorsed by at least 20 members of the House of Representatives, or be supported by no less than 25,000 citizens who have the right to vote in at least 15 governorates, with a minimum of 1,000 from each governorate.
While Sisi can easily get the endorsement of parliament, dominated by his supporters from the Nation's Future Party (NFP), government agencies have embarked on a nationwide campaign to collect signatures for the incumbent president who confirmed on Monday he will run for a third term.
But those signatures are accompanied by intimidation and bribery despite state media claiming that such nomination petitions for Sisi are voluntary, according to testimonies shared with Middle East Eye.
Six different individuals told MEE that they were either threatened, bribed or forced to go to real estate registry offices to file their nomination petitions for Sisi.
The testimonies match reports on social media suggesting the Takaful and Karama programme - a state-sponsored social security scheme - is withholding monthly pensions and new admissions for the programme until current or prospective benefactors submit their nomination petitions declaring their support for Sisi.
'We had to show and photocopy our [endorsement] file [for Sisi] in order to get our pension'
- Om Omnia, 51, kindergarten cleaner
The Takaful and Karama programme is the Sisi government's flagship cash support scheme, funded by Unicef and the World Bank, and benefiting 22 million people, 75 percent of whom are women from the country's most vulnerable social and economic backgrounds.
Om Omnia, 51, a cleaner in a kindergarten, told MEE that her Takaful and Karama programme pension for the month of September was held hostage until she presented a nomination petition in support of Sisi. She lives in one of Cairo's most impoverished neighbourhoods, Ain Shams.
She said that she and dozens of others had to meet up at the offices of the NFP.
"We were told to meet at the [NFP] building and sign up. Then we were loaded onto buses [and taken] to the nearest [real-estate] registry offices to vote for Sisi," she said, adding that "we had to show and photocopy our [endorsement] file in order to get our September Takaful [and Karama] pension."
Videos and state media coverage have highlighted the scenes of dozens of people arriving at the registry offices to support Sisi, most of whom are individuals aged 50 and over from impoverished backgrounds and areas around the country.
Tahani, a 54-year-old widowed street vendor in Cairo's Ezzbet El-Nakhl, experienced a similar scenario. She receives 550 EGP ($18 USD) per month as part of the Takaful and Karama programme.
Her social officer called her to report a problem with her debit card, which she uses to receive the pension, and told her she had to sign the petition for the problem to be solved.
"We stayed in the sun for three hours waiting for our turn. [We were] mostly divorcees, widows and patients [suffering from] cancer or kidney [failure]," she said.
"If I don't get these 550 EGP, I won't be able to feed my children or buy my diabetes medication."
In one of his speeches during a state-sponsored conference at the New Administrative Capital, Sisi on Saturday called his opponents “liars, saboteurs and wicked”, as critics questioned the billions spent on infrastructure projects that he has undertaken as many Egyptians struggle to make ends meet.
“Don’t you Egyptians dare say you would rather eat than build and progress,” Sisi said. “If the price of the nation’s progress and prosperity is to go hungry and thirsty, then let us not eat or drink,” he added.
Abu Emad, a retired plumber in Luxor who has been applying to receive the Takaful pension, said that state employees have requested an endorsement petition as a prerequisite for the application to be completed.
"I have been trying to apply for the pension for eight months, but the [Social] Solidarity Ministry employees told us that applications would only open now and we 'might' get the pension after the election," he told MEE over the phone.
Civil servants threatened
Meanwhile, civil servants are also being forced to file their petitions for Sisi.
Atef, 49, a registrar employee at the Ministry of Agriculture, said that his bosses forced the whole staff of his office to divide themselves into four shifts so they could all go and sign endorsement petitions.
"The boss, who is a member of the [ruling] Nation's Future Party (NFP), threatened that all of us must go 'or else', hinting at being interrogated by the state security which has offices in the building," he said, referring to the largest political party in parliament and Sisi's primary backer.
"I don't like the president because he made me and my family poor. I told the boss that I would endorse someone else, and [my boss] threatened me with prison and a terrorism charge."
Likewise, Mona Al-Sayyad, an employee in the Ministry of Education in Alexandria, was faced with the same situation. She was intimidated by her superiors to present a nomination petition receipt; otherwise, her medical sabbatical would be rejected.
She is a supporter of Ahmed Tantawi, the former MP and former head of the Nasserist Karama Party, who was the first to announce his intention to run for presidency in May.
"I will choose him in the elections when I have more freedom, even if I have to fake a sick leave," she added.
Tantawi is the most vocal opposition figure who is hoping to stand against Sisi, with rising popularity among young people and others who have been hurt by Egypt's crippling economic crisis.
Tantawi has pledged to free political prisoners, increase social safety nets and establish a healthy political and social atmosphere that would include Egyptians of all political affiliations.
On Monday, he denounced Sisi's suggestion that Egyptians should starve for the sake of the nation's progress.
Directly addressing Sisi, he wrote: "Egyptians actually starved during your rule because of your administration. They did not see any of the development that was promised."
Tantawi further accused Sisi of spreading lies and accumulating "high-rise buildings, cities and palaces built in deserts, even if it is at the expense of [the ordinary] man and his right to a decent life and education".
"[The government] has stripped citizens of social protection, leaving two-thirds of Egyptians living below and around the poverty line, while the conditions of most of the remaining third has deteriorated dangerously," he said.
MEE contacted the NEA to ask about whether they have received reports of violations and bribery. An official instead referred MEE to the State Information Services (SIS), which refused to comment.
A member of the NFP in the district of Abu Qir in Alexandria told MEE that "pensioners and older individuals need guidance and help when it comes to complicated procedures and that is what the party has been doing".
The party member, who requested anonymity, said that allegations of bribery were false and spread by supporters of opposition candidates.
The presidential election will take place as Egypt, home to over 109 million people, is in the midst of a severe economic crisis that has seen the Egyptian pound lose half its value against the dollar, leading to record inflation and foreign currency shortages.
In August, annual inflation in Egypt reached close to 40 percent, according to official figures, plunging further Egyptians near or under the poverty line.
While the financial crisis has a range of causes, including the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, opposition figures and economic analysts have pointed fingers at the increasing grip the military has held over the economy following Sisi's 2013 coup that ousted the elected government of Mohamed Morsi.
Sisi won a second term in the 2018 election in a landslide victory, with 97 percent of the vote, against one candidate, himself a supporter of Sisi, after all serious opposition hopefuls had either been arrested or pulled out, citing intimidation.
Constitutional amendments in 2019 paved the way for the 68-year-old former army general to stand for an additional two terms, as well as extending the duration of presidential terms from four years to six.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.