The unexpected twist in Egypt’s presidential election
CAIRO // There was never any doubt that Abdel Fattah El Sisi would win last week’s presidential election in a landslide. Thought to be almost as certain was that he would win with a convincing, even resounding, turnout.
Egypt’s former military chief won with more than 92 per cent of the votes. However, the turnout was a different story: 46 per cent of nearly 54 million registered voters actually cast ballots, according to the interim president, Adly Mansour.
Mr El Sisi had set the bar high when he gave his last campaign TV interview, saying he wanted to see 40 million citizens cast their ballots. Ordinarily, a 46 per cent turnout is respectable enough. But it is the manner in which that percentage was achieved that has come as a surprise, even a shock, to many in Egypt.
Mr El Sisi, who appeared confident of the result ahead of the poll, wanted a strong turnout to show critics at home and abroad that his removal last July of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi was not a coup but rather an expression of the people’s will. He also needed that so he can push ahead with far-reaching reforms, some of which will be a bitter pill to swallow for many Egyptians.
Mr Morsi won the 2012 presidential election with less than 52 per cent of the vote, or 13 million votes, on a turnout of about 52 per cent. Mr El Sisi won at least 10 million votes more than Mr Morsi, but it was all about turnout.
Nearly a year after he removed the country’s first freely elected president, Mr El Sisi went into the May 26-27 election riding a nationalist wave of support that cast him in the role of a saviour and a hero. The hype on the street was fed by the mostly pro-military media. In a series of TV interviews aired in the weeks before the vote, Mr El Sisi was brimming with confidence, showing a presidential air, snapping back at interviewers when he perceived a slight against the military, refusing to be interrupted and accepting lavish, sometime excessive, praise with a smile.
Fast forward to the start of polling and the first few hours saw an outpouring of support for Mr El Sisi. But then polling stations quickly emptied. Turnout was estimated to be between 15 and 20 per cent on the first day. At night, the hosts of the TV political shows, mostly pro- El Sisi but beholden to the powerful businessmen who own the networks, passionately bemoaned the lack of enthusiasm shown by voters. Some went much further, calling Egyptians who did not vote “traitors”. One host said the low turnout was tantamount to handing over the reins of power back to Mr Morsi.
The military-backed government did its part too. The second day of the vote was declared a national holiday to free voters to cast their ballots. Trains and buses were declared free of charge so that voters living away from their homes could travel to the areas where they were registered to cast their ballots. And, in perhaps the most draconian measure, the election commission threatened to invoke a rarely applied law that punishes those who don’t participate with a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (Dh260), a large sum to most Egyptians.
Across the nation, but particularly in rural areas, the networks of Hosni Mubarak’s now-dissolved National Democratic Party went into action, arranging buses to take voters to polling centres. The Coptic Christian patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, was approached by authorities to see if he could produce the Christian vote. He gave a televised address on Tuesday, urging Egyptians to cast their ballots.
It worked. Voters flocked to polling centres on Tuesday evening in numbers that made up for Monday’s thin turnout. A surprise decision by the election commission to extend voting for a third day improved the turnout, but not by much.
However, Hamdeen Sabahi, the left-wing politician whose decision to run against Mr El Sisi won him much praise, but a meagre 2.9 per cent of the vote, said the turnout figure given by the interim president — 46 per cent — was not credible and an “insult to the intelligence of Egyptians”.
Foreign observers of the vote said the election was carried out within the boundaries of the law, but their public comments made it clear they were less than entirely happy with the process.
Egyptians had a variety of theories to explain the lack of enthusiasm.
One was that with the outcome of the vote a foregone conclusion, many voters could not be bothered to go to the polls. Another theory was “voting fatigue”.
Last week’s election was the eighth nationwide vote since Mr Mubarak’s February 2011 removal from power. A third one is that Mr El Sisi, while popular, did not have a grass-roots organisation, like Mubarak’s NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood, to get out the vote and relied instead on his popularity.
That may have been a mistake.
A few days before the vote, the US-based research centre Pew released the results of an opinion survey in Egypt it carried out in April. They showed that only 54 per cent of Egyptians looked favourably on Mr El Sisi. His military takeover last July enjoyed the support of 54 per cent, while 43 per cent opposed it.
The poll was based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews with adults aged 18 and older conducted between April 10 and 29. It has a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.
Updated: May 31, 2014 04:00 AM