Cairo: Like other parts of Egypt, Gamaliya in Islamic Cairo is full of banners proclaiming backing for President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi’s re-election. The district, where Al Sissi was born 63 years ago, has something else to be proud of: long queues of voters.
“President Al Sissi is very popular in Gamaliya, not only because he is a sincere son of this area, but also because of what he has achieved for Egypt,” said Montasser Al Khashab, an owner of a bookbinding workshop in the 15th century district.
“I voted for him and will elect him a thousand times if God made me live longer,” the 59-year-old man added passionately after emerging from a polling station housed in a school in the historic area.
Earlier Monday, Al Sissi met with his campaign workers after casting his ballot in the election. The meeting on Monday, detailed by Al Sissi’s office, was the president’s first publicised meeting with his campaign leaders. Al Sissi has not done any traditional campaigning in the run-up to the vote.
Outside the Gamaliya polling station, authorities have set up a long umbrella bedecked with colours of the Egyptian flag. Some women ululate in celebration as backers of Al Sissi shout in unison: “We love you, Sissi.”
“I knew that all people of Gamaliya would come and express their gratitude to President Al Sissi by voting. Therefore, I came here about two hours before the polling started in order to reserve a place,” Al Khashab said.
Al Sissi gained cult status in Egypt in mid-2013 when, as defence minister, he led the army’s ouster of president Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood following massive protests against his one-year rule
A year later, Al Sissi became president after he won a landslide in elections.
In the three-day vote, which began on Monday in Egypt, Al Sissi’s sole challenger is obscure politician Mousa Mustafa, regarded as a backer of the incumbent president.
“No to Mousa or even Trump. Al Sissi is my president,” said Ahmad Mahrus as he waved his purple-stained finger proving he has voted.
“We all trust this man [Al Sissi] because he risked his life to rid us of the Brotherhood,” the 52-year-old added. “He has also planted the seeds of development across Egypt. Long live Egypt!” Mahrus said, echoing Al Sissi’s signature slogan.
Over the past four years, Al Sissi has launched a string of job-creating projects and a network of long roads. He also initiated an ambitious plan to relocate dwellers of shanty towns to well-fitted residential communities.
However, his popularity is believed to have dipped due to austerity measures, which have unleashed record inflation rates and price hikes of different goods in this country of nearly 95 million people.
Al Sissi and his loyalists have defended the steps as unavoidable in order to rejuvenate the country’s ailing economy battered by the unrest that followed the 2011 revolt.
“What else could the man have done? He got it [Egypt] in ruins,” argued an old man called Shaikh Nagy as he left the polling station supported by two relatives.
“You must thank God for having a pious man like him, who loves his country and works day and night for it,” he added, referring to Al Sissi. “He is making the future for Egypt,” Shaikh Nagy said as other locals walked past him, waving the national flag.
A small car emerged from an alleyway, playing patriotic songs and calling on people through a loudspeaker “to participate and show gratitude”.
“We don’t need this call,” said Khalil Abdul Qawi, a local perfume trader. “Al Sissi is the son of our area. Voting for him is the least we can offer for him and Egypt.”
Situated in the heart of Cairo, Gamaliya is famous for the 10th century Mosque of Al Azhar, one of the key Muslim sites. The district houses the celebrated Khan Al Khalili bazaar.
In some interviews, Al Sissi has spoken fondly of his early life in Gamaliya.
“I grew up in a very simple district whose residents are kind-hearted,” he said in a television interview last week.
“My mother was on good terms with everyone. She used to sit with me daily and talk to me about what is halal [religiously permissible] and not. I belong to a family who practice moderate Islam like other Egyptians.”