CAIRO (Reuters) - As some voters in mainland Egypt chanted praise for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi outside polling stations on their way to re-elect him, residents of the restive northern Sinai Peninsula lined up for a different reason - bread handouts.
A military campaign in North Sinai that aims to crush Islamic State militants has blocked most access to the peninsula as forces carry out air raids, deploy patrols and impose curfews, creating a stranglehold that has led to a shortage of food and supplies, locals say.
With many people afraid to leave their homes amid the fighting against militants, barely any voters cast their ballots in parts of North Sinai on the first day of the three-day election, local officials and residents said.
“I went to vote because I was waiting in line to pick up bread” being handed out by the army, school teacher Selim Ahmed told Reuters by phone from his town of Sheikh Zuweid.
“The polling station happened to be nearby so I voted. People here are waiting for food baskets, of which there are few. They’re not queuing up to vote,” he said.
Ahmed Raouf, an official overseeing voting in another area in Sheikh Zuweid, near the border with the Gaza Strip, said only one person had been into the polling station he was supervising.
“That’s out of an electorate of 6,000 people in this area. People are scared to come out because of the ongoing military operations and threats of targeting polling stations,” Raouf said.
Islamic State in the weeks before the election warned Egyptians not to vote in an apparent threat.
Egypt’s election commission said late on Monday that turnout in parts of North Sinai had been “very good”.
The election, in which polls are open from Monday to Wednesday, is set to hand former military commander Sisi a second term as he faces one barely known challenger after serious opposition pulled out under pressure.
Voters went to polls in Cairo and other mainland cities on Monday, with the vote focussed mainly on turnout. Sisi supporters hope he can bring stability and improve Egypt’s ailing economy.
Islamists have waged an insurgency in North Sinai which intensified after Sisi led the military ousting of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. A year later, Islamic State set up its Sinai branch and has killed hundreds of soldiers and police and expanded targets to include civilians.
An attack on a mosque near the North Sinai capital of Al-Arish in November killed more than 300 people, Egypt’s deadliest such incident, prompting Sisi to order the military to use “brute force” to crush insurgents.
The tactics the military is using, which some analysts say are too heavy-handed to defeat a guerrilla-style insurgency, have made it difficult for civilians to move and have choked supplies, locals say.
“We often wait for more than five hours for trucks to come carrying food parcels. Sometimes they get here, sometimes they don’t,” Yousef Ali from Al-Arish said last week.
“If only they’d let us move freely in the city or go to another province - but we’re not allowed to leave,” he said.
Curfews were imposed earlier this year in areas where military operations are focussed and security forces are patrolling the length of the Suez Canal that separates Sinai from the mainland, the military says.
The military says it is distributing plenty of food and compensating families for material damage sustained to homes during fighting.
One of the few areas in North Sinai that witnessed a higher turnout was the town where militants killed Muslim worshippers in November. An official said tribal leaders there had mobilised people to vote en masse.
Elsewhere, the tense security situation prevented many from leaving their homes, Ali said on Monday.
“Security forces are searching voters, and there are roadblocks up.”
Writing by John Davison; Editing by Lisa Shumaker