x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 December 2017

Low voter turnout showed Egyptians' mixed emotions

Egypt Elections: With so many choices in the Egyptian presidential election, some voters relied on character assessments of the candidates.

Egypt's presidential election attracted a significantly lower turnout (roughly 40 per cent of those eligible to vote) than the parliamentary elections of last December and January (54 per cent).

In Saft Al Laban, part of the sprawling slums covering the Giza plateau, polling stations were quiet last week, where there had been kilometre-long queues in the parliamentary contest.

Those elections had come right after violent protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and many voters felt their participation was a means of restoring calm to the streets. Others said the revolution had convinced them of their right and duty to choose a government. Still others claimed they would have stayed home had they not believed they would face a military-imposed fine of 500 pounds (Dh304) for not voting.

The ensuing months, characterised more by large, sometimes deadly, protests than by improvements in the average citizen's lot, help explain the voter disenchantment this time around. "Nothing will change because we love slavery" said one thin, worn taxi driver. "Why should I vote? It would be against my Egyptian character."

One polling station with long lines of expectant voters was in the middle-class Abbasiyya neighbourhood, where street clashes among protesters, security forces and unidentified thugs killed 20, less than three weeks ago.

In the early evening of May 23, women outnumbered men two to one. "It doesn't matter who wins," said a young woman holding a smartphone, "the point is we can choose, and in a few years we can choose again."

Yet the choice among 12 candidates elicited more confusion than excitement during the month of campaigning. In the absence of a constitution, candidates were competing to lead a government without a clear division of powers. They barely outlined their plans to achieve campaign promises like "security within 100 days" or making Egypt "a regional and world leader".

Election-related broadcasts, including the highly publicised ONTV debate between then front-runners Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, apparently served advertising sponsors better than the favoured candidates, who won far fewer votes than expected.

Nor was TV coverage sufficient to engage the entire nation. Several illiterate voting-aged youths living near the tourist-bereft Pyramids could not name the main contenders. One backed the Muslim Brotherhood without being able to name the group's candidate, Mohammed Morsi. "I voted for the scales," he said, referring to the symbol of Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Egypt's best-organised political group, which built loyalty through years of community service to the poor.

With candidates' qualifications as sketchy as their job descriptions and promises, many voters relied on character assessment as the basis of their choice.

"Strong" was the word invariably used to describe former air force commander and civil aviation minister Ahmed Shafiq, even though his two-month tenure as Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister ended in humiliation. Questioned on satellite TV by novelist/activist Alaa Al Aswany, Mr Shafiq revealed irritable, inarticulate disdain for the revolution and was forced to resign in March 2011.

Some activists boycotted the election, calling it illegitimate or claiming that the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) would rig it in favour of Mr Shafiq. "If he wins there will be blood in the streets," they said.

The association with Mr Mubarak that discredited Mr Shafiq last year has proved to be one of his virtues for supporters from a range of generations and income brackets.

"We need someone a little dictator-ish for the next four years," one fashionably-dressed young woman said, "to get us back on track."

Others supporting Mr Shafiq said they did so because "crime has got out of hand" or because "the economy is failing" or because "Amr Moussa is too weak".

The relatively unknown Hamdeen Sabbahi, billed as a Gamal Nasser-style socialist, won support mostly but not exclusively from young voters, a clear indication that Egyptians are open to alternatives.

"He cares about people," said a 20-year old downtown street vendor. "Hamdeen's not religious and he's not from the old regime," said a 25-year-old woman who runs a small coiffure salon. Like many families, hers voted for several different candidates, having discussed them at length.

"None of these guys are great" said a young video journalist, "but for now, they're all we've got."

Of the millions of Egyptians who participated, many surely had similar reservations. "It's a process" more than one said with resignation. But many others considered the elections a revolutionary gain and were proud that the polling was peaceful and orderly.

Results announced so far indicate a run-off between Ahmed Shafiq and the Brotherhood's Mr Morsi, hardly a dream contest.

These results nonetheless do reflect Egypt's reality: the Brotherhood has conscientiously accumulated supporters, while the backing for a remnant of the old regime signals widespread yearning for stability.

Whether the eliminated candidates choose to rally behind one of the two finalists, and whether the military attempts to interfere, remain to be seen.

Assuming that the June final vote is not tampered with, the real question will be whether those who disagree with the majority's choice will work to create and build consensus around the alternative leadership and vision that Egypt so desperately needs.


Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt