ARISH, Egypt (Reuters) - On Oct. 24, Mostafa Abdelrahman stepped out of his home in al-Arish, the sandswept capital of Egypt’s North Sinai province. Within seconds, two men pulled up on a motorcycle and shot him dead. His campaign for parliament was over.
The same day, five other candidates pulled out of the race.
Abdelrahman’s death highlights the dangers of holding elections in a region where the Egyptian military is fighting militants affiliated to Islamic State who have killed hundreds of soldiers and police in the past two years.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presents the vote as the last step towards restoring democracy, two years after he ousted Egypt’s first freely-elected president, Islamist Mohamed Mursi.
The fighting in North Sinai, a strategically important stretch of desert bordering Israel, Gaza and the international shipping lane of the Suez Canal, intensified soon after Mursi’s downfall.
With candidates pulling out, some after receiving death threats from militants, and voters saying they do not feel safe enough to vote, those still running believe the election on Nov. 22-23 is likely to have a measly turnout in North Sinai.
In Arish, a drab city of 160,000 where 1980s’ Mediterranean beach resorts lie abandoned, not a single campaign poster can be seen on the streets. Even a large mosque that was a campaign center is bereft of banners.
Hossam Refai, a local candidate, tried to sound upbeat. “The security situation in Arish is much better than in other towns,” he said last month, explaining at the time that he hadn’t put up any posters “because officially campaigning hasn’t started”.
Two days after he spoke he pulled out of the race, alarmed and frightened by Abdelrahman’s shooting.
”If I hang up a banner I will die the next day,“ said a candidate who remains in the race, requesting anonymity for fear of his life. ”The militants threaten us and see our running as siding with the state against them.
“Abdelrahman was killed because he started campaigning.”
In nearby Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, towns close to the Gaza border that have been the scene of the worst fighting, the candidates have all fled, as have more than 3,000 families trying to escape the unrest.
The two towns and surrounding villages are organized under one district, with four candidates vying for one seat. Two candidates are now based in Arish and the other two about 370 km (230 miles) away in Cairo.
“I can’t go out on a tour or talk to citizens because of the fighting and the curfew,” said Amal Madi, one of the candidates now living in Arish, where the outskirts look not unlike the Wild West, sand drifting across the horizon.
People preparing to vote are also thin on the ground in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. “The roads are closed, the villages are all but empty,” said Mona Barhouma, a local activist. “I don’t even know where my polling station is.”
Barhouma used to live in Rafah. Her home was one of thousands that have been demolished in the past year to create a buffer zone with nearby Gaza, an effort by Egypt to end what it says is the smuggling of arms via secret tunnels.
“They say of our district: those who enter disappear and those who leave are reborn. So which voter will participate?”
DON‘T KNOW ABOUT ELECTIONS
The Egyptian elections are a lengthy process. Some areas began voting last month, while North Sinai, along with 12 other provinces, goes to the polls on Nov. 22-23. Security sources told Reuters the army would send special forces to bolster security at polling stations and on main roads, where checkpoints have frequently been attacked.
Like many others, Barhouma believes security fears will drive away voters. Militants dressed in fatigues, some brandishing the black flag of Islamic State, have become part of many people’s nightmares, even if they see them more in videos posted online than they do on the streets.
“I think it will be extremely difficult,” said Hossam Shahine who is running in Arish. Shahine, whose brother was killed by suspected militants in October, said he expects violence in three of the province’s four districts.
Like many other candidates in the worst-hit areas, he would prefer the ballot to be postponed. Some local people aren’t even aware that elections are scheduled to take place.
In a plot of desert next to Arish’s main road stand a dozen shacks made of wood and straw, constructed by those who fled the fighting in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah.
“We don’t know anything about elections,” said an elderly man who left Sheikh Zuweid. “We left our homes and lives. Everyone from my village has left. We heard there are elections in Egypt but we don’t know if they will hold them here.”
Additional reporting by Mohamed Abdellah in Cairo; Editing by Luke Baker, Lin Noueihed and David Stamp