Beset by months of tumult, many in Fayoum support Egyptian ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in next week’s election to replace the Islamist president they backed before the military toppled him.
Campaign posters for the retired field marshal adorn main squares in the impoverished agricultural town, 100 kilometres (62 miles) southwest of Cairo, where 77 percent of voters backed ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2012.
Sisi is now expected to easily win a May 26-27 presidential, riding on a wave of popularity for removing the divisive Morsi from power last year, while brandishing a severe, if vague, pledge to restore the economy and order.
Yet large pockets of dissent remain in the wake of a brutal crackdown on Islamists following Morsi’s ouster. Tellingly, Sisi banners and placards are often placed near the relative safety of state buildings and police stations.
In the narrow and crowded alleys of the central market, many view Sisi as the only leader capable of restoring security and reviving an economy badly hit by turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“We want security and stability. I am a street vendor, and I want to make a living for me and my children,” 36-year-old Ahmed Qotb told AFP from behind his fruit stall.
Qotb, who voted for the ultra-conservative Salafist party Al-Nour during the 2011 parliamentary elections, said people now shun Islamists after experiencing the rule of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
“People don’t trust the Islamist camp because of the Brotherhood. They have been sidelined,” he added.
Since Morsi’s ouster, supporters of the Islamist leader in Fayoum have been staging near-weekly protests calling for his reinstatement.
But amid a crackdown that has left at least 1,400 dead and more than 15,000 jailed nationwide, their numbers have sharply decreased.
Sisi’s critics say that if elected he would restore autocracy.
But many in Fayoum said they wanted a tough leader who would restore order in post-revolt Egypt.
“We are the people of Pharaoh; this country needs a strongman, not someone weak,” said Salah Hussein, a 43-year-old shoe store owner.
When asked about the Brotherhood, his veiled wife, donned in a black abaya, intervened.
“We have nothing to do with them, leave us,” she said, jangling her golden bracelets as she gestured at an AFP correspondent to leave.
Sayed Fathy, a 42-year-old engineer, said he would vote for Sisi because of his military background, which he said made him the most suitable candidate to restore security.
Sisi’s only rival in the election is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi.
“He is a military man, we are used to the good rule of military men”, he said.
All of Egypt’s presidents had been drawn from the military before Mubarak’s overthrow, with Morsi being the brief exception.
– Election already ‘decided’ –
Sisi supporters have set up campaign offices close to the province’s security headquarters and other government buildings, which are protected by concrete barrier structures and guarded by police and military armoured vehicles.
“It’s to prevent anything from happening,” the campaign’s leader, Ibrahim Zidan, said of the location.
“But nothing will happen and we don’t have any worries,” added the 40-year-old who normally runs a real estate business.
Anti-Sisi graffiti can still be seen on the dusty walls of Fayoum.
And Morsi supporters remain vocal, lashing out at the military man who has become a nationalistic icon few dare to criticise in public.
“Protests will break the coup, people will keep taking to the streets and boycott the election,” 21-year-old veiled student Gehad said, as she left a university campus.
She and three friends, who wore the full face veil of some conservative Muslim women, said they too would not vote.
Mahmud al-Bisi, a staunch Sabbahi supporter, said his group has been organising marches and handing out leaflets to present the programme of the longtime opposition figure.
Bisi added however that all the violence recently witnessed in the province has left a “feeling of despair and defeat” among the people.
“Those who debate or express their opinion are rare… people see (the election) as already decided.”