CAIRO — The barbed wire blocking the road is the only indication of the whereabouts of presidential hopeful Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s campaign headquarters, located in the posh Al-Showaifat area in Cairo’s northern Fifth Settlement suburb.
After many failed attempts to reach campaign officials, Mada Masr’s brief visit to al-Sisi’s campaign headquarters yielded no better results.
Heavily armed bodyguards check the identity of those who wish to visit the headquarters. Security guards from the Falcon Group firm wear bulletproof vests and are armed with machine guns. Explosive-device detectors are also at hand.
"You cannot enter without an appointment," a bodyguard carrying a huge machine gun told Mada Masr. "You may leave your business card and one member of the media team will call you soon," he added.
But the call never came.
There was a very different kind of scene at a public rally held in the Cairo Conference Hall. Supporters of the former army chief responsible for the overthrow of deposed President Mohamed Morsi poured in from different governorates as part of a love fest that al-Sisi didn't even show up for.
"I do not want to see Mahmoud Karem. I want to see al-Sisi himself. That's why I’m here," said rally attendee Amina Galal, who was disappointed when it was announced that Karem, al-Sisi's campaign coordinator, was the speaker.
But Iman al-Hakim, a supporter who came all the way from Alexandria to voice her support for al-Sisi, said she had no problems with the tight security measures that prevented the candidate from being present.
"He is targeted, and he is not like any other presidential candidate," she says. "He is exceptional, and we have to accept that."
The al-Sisi campaign has declined to present its political platform, arguing that it is too complicated for the public to absorb and will stir unnecessary debate. The candidate has also not given any live interviews. His campaign has been criticized for its lack of media accessibility and high-handedness.
Take it or leave it
Several journalists have complained that they find it difficult to reach out to al-Sisi campaign officials, and others characterize the campaign as "arrogant."
Among them is Mahmoud al-Mamlouk, executive producer of state television's main daily talk show Ala Esm Masr (On Egypt’s Name). He says that his producers, after extensive efforts, have managed to schedule only one interview with a campaign official.
"I have never seen this in any other campaign," Mamlouk said. If the al-Sisi campaign is foregoing media outreach because it is so confident it will win, he says, "This is not in a country that is witnessing a democratic transition following a revolution."
In the campaign's first and only press conference after al-Sisi's official nomination, campaign legal official Mohamed Bahaa Eddin Abu Shakka said that the team is simply showing discipline.
He acknowledged the grumbling but said, "There is a principle that we are all committed to, a principle derived from the character of the candidate that we represent, which is extreme discipline."
Shakka referred to regulations stipulating that media campaigning should not start before the High Elections Commission's (HEC) official declaration of the final list of candidates.
"The amount of minor violations that are considered acceptable to others are not acceptable to us," Shakka added.
Al-Sisi and Sabbahi are the only presidential candidates for the elections, which are scheduled for May 26 and 27.
Publisher and commentator Hesham Kassem told Mada Masr that there is no specific behavioral guide that all political campaigns should follow, and that every campaign sets its own tactics according to its needs.
"Al-Sisi is free to campaign the way he likes as long as he works within the framework of the law," he argued. "In al-Sisi's case, we have to realize the security threats he faces, his lack of political experience and his fears of making mistakes that may discredit his huge popularity."
May 14 pro-al-Sisi rallies in Cairo — Source: Mada expand=1] Masr
In the interview, al-Sisi seemed very much in control, raising his voice whenever the hosts pressed him for answers. "Will you listen to me, or you are going to continue talking?" al-Sisi asked the two hosts at one point.
Journalist Mohamed Fathy said that both the meeting and the interview were edited by the campaign, and he expects they will do the same for all future interviews.
"The issue is all about supply and demand," said Fathy, who explains that the al-Sisi campaign has a "take it or leave it" attitude. Sisi's campaign cites security concerns as the reason it needs to keep a tight control over his media appearances. It insists on reviewing and approving interviews before they air, said Fathy.
A non-traditional campaign
In his nomination speech in March, which was aired on state television, al-Sisi said, "I won’t have an electoral campaign in the traditional way. But it is your right to know the shape of the future as I imagine it. This will be done through an electoral program that carries a clear vision aiming to establish a democratic and modern Egyptian state. The program will be declared once the HEC allows," Sisi said.
But the electoral program has not yet been unveiled. In his latest interview, al-Sisi referred to his plans for countering terrorism, ending the security vacuum and developing the economy, but he offered few details.
Campaign spokesperson Ahmed Kamel said in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper that the program is not going to be released now "because releasing the detailed program will be followed by arguments and discussions that we do not have the time to address."
Striking a similar note, longtime Nasserist journalist Mohamed Hassanien Heikel said in an interview with CBC satellite channel in April that al-Sisi does not need a program.
"He is the candidate of necessity and does not need a program, because we are not in a traditional stage," he said. "His program is the crisis we are living. We do not need a detailed map. We just need signals."
Al-Sisi's campaign also rejected ongoing requests from Sabbahi's campaign to hold a live debate between the two candidates.
Mohamed Badran, a member of the Sisi campaign’s political bureau, said in an interview with Al-Tahrir satellite channel that the two candidates lack the kind of competition necessary to hold a debate.
Even the security firm that secures the campaign's activities and headquarters is shrouded in speculation and secrecy.
When al-Sisi presented his candidacy papers, the area where the HEC is located in Salah Salem was on high alert. The street was temporarily blocked when heavily armed Falcon Group security guards left the firm's vehicles carrying boxes, which contained the 200,000 endorsements required for his candidacy.
Falcon Group, according to its official website, was originally established in 1974 as part of the Commercial International Bank (CIB) security and safety department tasked with money transfer.
Given Falcon's profile and size, it can be considered an army of its own. The group's customers include the National Bank of Egypt, Central Bank of Egypt, Cairo Bank, HSBC, among a whole host of other banking corporations. The group's customers among diplomatic missions and offices include the Embassies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the United Nations and a number of UN bodies.
An investigation by the Yanair online portal referred to links between the group and Egyptian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris and former intelligence officer Sameh Seif al-Yazal. Neither were available for comment on the alleged links.
All of al-Sisi’s men
The identity of the would-be president's advisers and campaign managers has also been an issue of great contention and speculation.
The campaign's executive members include diplomat Mahmoud Karem and a few other known personalities, but it is unclear who has helped form his political ideas. Al-Sisi has referred to the support of "scientists and experts," but no names have been mentioned.
In previous weeks, several prominent figures have been identified as possible campaign advisers. These include Cairo University professor Mostafa Abdel Gelil, a member of the Egyptian Association for Change that stood against deposed President Hosni Mubarak, filmmaker Khaled Youssef, and political scientist and former parliamentarian Amr al-Shobaky, among others.
But in late April, Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported that al-Sisi has reduced his campaign size to avoid unnecessary expense. According to the newspaper, the campaign team has now been reduced to four main executives.
Sources close to al-Sisi told the newspaper that he prefers a campaign that is less official and more popular in nature. Al-Masry Al-Youm also reported that some of his supporters have objected to the way members of his official campaign have been chosen, overlooking the grassroots campaigns supporting his bid.
Shobaky told Al-Shorouk newspaper that his role was only to participate in an advisory committee tasked with assessing Sisi's platform and partially drafting it.
Nonetheless, Shobaky — like many others — has continued offering advice and encouragement to the campaign in his newspaper columns, recently comparing the military leader to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
"In the Egyptian case, the example of the national hero who comes from outside of the political scene and gains huge popularity upon his first encounter with the public is repeated again after 60 years," he recently wrote.
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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