President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt woke up on Oct. 7 remarkably unpopular for someone considered a shoo-in for a third term in office — guaranteed by his authoritarian grip on the country to dominate elections that begin on Sunday, but badly damaged by a slow-motion economic collapse.
The ensuing weeks have eclipsed all of that, with war displacing financial worries as the top item on many Egyptians’ minds, lips and social media feeds. For Western partners and wealthy Gulf backers, the crisis has also highlighted Egypt’s vital role as a conduit for humanitarian aid to Gaza and a mediator between Israel and Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that led the attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and set off the war.
Mr. el-Sisi, a former general with a knack for outlasting setbacks, appeared to have caught yet another break, one that has allowed him to position himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause at home and an indispensable regional leader abroad.
In Cairo these days, a widespread boycott of Western companies associated with support for Israel has transformed the simple act of serving a Pepsi into a serious faux pas. Egyptians struggling to cover the basics after nearly two years of record-setting inflation have opened their wallets to help victims of the Gaza war. And in a country where protests have been banned for years, hundreds of people have braved arrest to march in solidarity with the Palestinians.
The three-day presidential vote starting on Sunday is expected to rubber-stamp Mr. el-Sisi’s hold for another six-year term: None of his three challengers stand a chance of unseating him.
And with public support for the Palestinians at a high, Egyptians are alert to any sign that their government may be complicit in the suffering in Gaza, whether by acceding to Israeli restrictions on the aid flowing from Egypt into the territory or proposals to move Gazans into Egypt in exchange for aid — an idea that is widely opposed across the Arab world.
“The government definitely doesn’t want to test the patience of the Egyptian people, not when it comes to Palestine,” said Hesham Sallam, a scholar of Arab politics at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
Like many in Cairo these days, Aya Khalil, 34, a private art teacher, questioned whether the government was doing enough to pump aid into Gaza. Egypt blames Israel for limiting the aid, but calls to end the 16-year-old joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza and for Egypt to stop giving Israel any say over Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza have grown in recent weeks.
Yet Egypt cannot afford to alienate Israel, with which it has developed a strong, if hush-hush, security partnership in the Sinai Peninsula, or to agitate Western backers, particularly when it needs all the financial support it can get.
Before Hamas’s attack on Israel, signs of Mr. el-Sisi’s growing unpopularity were unmistakable. But within days of Israel’s assault on Gaza in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attacks, however, Mr. el-Sisi’s wobble appeared to have steadied.
Liberal activists, Sisi supporters and many people in between have found themselves in a rare moment of unity, condemning Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza and rejecting the idea of Gazans’ being forced into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which borders the territory.
Many fear such displacement would mean the Palestinians would lose their own land forever and bring Hamas into a historically and emotionally charged part of Egypt, eventually drawing Egypt into a war with Israel.
Mr. el-Sisi was quick to read the room.
“The aim of the stifling blockade on the strip, of cutting water and power and preventing the entry of aid, is to push the Palestinians toward Egypt,” the president said in a joint news conference with the German chancellor on Oct. 18, one of several times he has made clear that the answer is no.
“We reject the liquidation of the Palestinian cause and the forced displacement in Sinai.”
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