Daily Dispatches
A polling station in Cairo
Associated Press/Photo by Nariman El-Mofty
A polling station in Cairo

Egypt’s low voter turnout brings a chill to Arab Spring

Egypt

UPDATE (9:20 a.m. May 29): With nearly all of the votes counted, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has declared his expected victory in the presidential election. Although the former military leader came away with 92 percent of the vote, just 46 percent of Egyptians cast ballots in the election. During the last election, which brought the now-ousted Mohammed Morsi to power in 2012, 52 percent of the country's 54 million registered voters went to the polls.

OUR EARLIER REPORT: CAIRO—Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s anticipated victory in Egypt’s presidential elections might not equate to a mandate to rule because of dismal voter turnout.

Polls were scheduled to close at 9 p.m. Tuesday, completing a two-day election. On Monday evening, the government declared Tuesday a holiday to enable citizens to vote and moved poll closing time to 10 p.m. But following a slow day at the polls Tuesday, the Presidential Election Committee announced an additional voting day in attempt to generate higher turnout.

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Blaming factors including the hot weather and voters’ inability to reach their polling places, the government resorted to threatening to enforce a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (about $72) for abstaining. On Wednesday, the government also offered free public transportation for individuals traveling to their home districts to vote.

But time off, lighter traffic and assurance of safety for voters failed to yield high traffic to polling sites. The news site Ahram Online estimated Monday’s turnout between 4 million and 8 million voters, far short of al-Sisi’s goal of goal of 40 million to solidify his legitimacy as president.

On Monday and Tuesday, Cairo felt uncharacteristically under control. Helicopters circled over downtown neighborhoods and traffic flowed with unusual ease since many of Egypt’s workers took vacation in order to vote. New posters hanging downtown showed images of heavily armed guards and read, “Come out [and vote]; we will protect you.” A billboard featuring an oversized al-Sisi that perched above Tahrir Square suggested he oversees the city’s movements.

Outside one poll, an enthusiastic vendor presented Egyptian flags and Al-Sisi paraphernalia to a sparse crowd. He passed out laminated pictures tied with ribbons to be worn as pendants. The image showed al-Sisi sitting in a chair in front of the three Giza pyramids. “Al-Sisi: the fourth pyramid,” read the caption. When asked if he had anything for Hamdeen Sabahi, al-Sisi’s challenger, he laughed.

 With prospects of a Sabahi presidency nearly washed away in the sea of al-Sisi images, traces of his campaign and supporters are a novelty. A cab driver named Ibrahim told me, “I voted for Hamdeen. I like al-Sisi, too, but Sabahi is for the youth and the revolution.”

Many Egyptians, including Muslim Brotherhood supporters and youth who view al-Sisi as a strong man who will do away with the ideals of the 2011 revolution, either refrained from voting or purposely negated their ballots by voting for themselves or friends (or writing slogans or nonsense words). The resulting vote vacuum has sounded an alarm for al-Sisi supporters who assumed that strong participation numbers would bolster their new leader.

While the third voting day drew a modest number of additional votes, it also saw widespread suspicion and anger regarding the fine against non-participants. A young teacher from a village north of Cairo told me he had planned to vote for al-Sisi and had never participated in a protest. But he changed his mind about voting when heard about the fine. “This is not right,” he said. “They should have just faced the results after two days. Now my wife and I will not vote. There needs to be freedom in elections.”

With the final day of elections drawing to a close, al-Sisi and his supporters may need to brace for disappointment about participation levels, but they can still count on victory. According to Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, Egyptians can expect final election results on June 5, at which point the interim government, which has ruled the country since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi last summer, will step down. When responsibility for the nation officially passes to al-Sisi, he will have the task of leading a divided nation.

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