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Egypt election: polls open amid concerns over voter apathy

With Abdel Fatah al-Sisi assured of re-election, the campaign has focused on boosting turnout

Egyptians are going to the polls on Monday in an election that is almost certain to result in victory for the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, after all credible opponents were unable to stand against him, citing intimidation by authorities.
The country’s 60 million eligible voters have a choice between the incumbent and a little-known candidate who has previously expressed support for Sisi.
But amid concern that the personality campaign that inspired “Sisi-mania” before the 2014 election is likely to be met with widespread voter apathy this time, the government has mounted a fierce campaign in an attempt to boost numbers at the polls. Turnout is seen as the only issue that will be in doubt in this election.
Two people from different neighbourhoods in Cairo said they had witnessed attempts to buy votes. A third, from another district, recounted how a local shopkeeper had been pressured to hang a banner in support of Sisi. All asked to conceal their identities for their their own safety.
Meanwhile, staunch supporters of the president such as the television anchor and jewellery maker Nermin Nazim, have been attempting to rally enthusiasm.
“There will be those who support him but don’t want to bother to vote,” Nazim said. “How can he win if nobody goes [to the polls]? He can’t win with a tiny majority.”
Radio and television ads encouraging voting fill the airwaves, and Egypt’s grand mufti released a video message imploring citizens to play their part.
The Egyptian cabinet’s information and decision support centre released a slick video showing citizens texting each other about voting, while a channel owned by a pro-government politician and security contractor produced a song, Participate, the chorus of which implores listeners to “participate in your country at every step … participate! Don’t leave Egypt for a single moment.”
A resident of the Haram neighbourhood in Giza said wealthy families had offered impoverished residents 100 Egyptian pounds (£4) for them to go and vote. “They’re in need and happy to receive it,” she said.
A resident of the Ain Shams neighbourhood in Cairo said a local shop owner who sells government-subsidised products had told residents they would receive extra food if they could prove they had voted.
“I was sitting in a cafe and the person responsible for distributing subsidised goods told us and all the families to give in our supply cards,” he said. “He said if we come back with our fingers stained with pink ink [to prove they voted], we will receive either a box of rations or extra points for rations for next month.”
Sisi’s only opponent is Mousa Mostafa Mousa, who has declared that he “is not here to challenge the president” and who entered the race at the last minute after five other potential challengers were blocked from getting on the ballot.
Achieving a level of turnout that gives Sisi a strong mandate is likely to prove a challenge. In 2014, a year after Sisi swept to power after a popularly backed military coup, turnout was 47.5%. To achieve this, authorities extended voting by a day, threatened fines for no-shows and waived train fares to drive people to the polls. Sisi won with 97% of votes cast.
Unlike his nominal competitor, Sisi has not declared a formal election platform, instead telling Egyptians to go out and vote as high turnout “represents support to the state and its project”.
Despite government efforts, many feel voting is a waste of time. “The elections are a lost cause,” said Samia, from Assiut, whose full name has been withheld for her safety. “I voted for him [Sisi] in 2014 and was convinced he’d be someone loyal to the people and underprivileged, but he stayed on the side of the rich.”
Markos, who hails from the country’s Coptic Christian minority that has traditionally supported the president, said he would not be voting either. “The regime has taken people for granted,” he said. “It should be a referendum rather than an election. It would be more reasonable.”
He added: “The government is trying to beg people to come and vote. The regime wants to prove to itself and to the world that people still support it. And this popularity contest is the best thing to do.”
Many observers are now more interested in Sisi’s aims for his second term, amid widespread concern that he will seek to amend the constitution to remove presidential term limits.
“I think it very likely that the regime will seek to engineer the extension of Sisi’s rule,” said Michael Hanna, of the New York-based thinktank The Century Foundation. “We have seen hints of this, as the idea has previously been floated publicly by Sisi allies.
“The regime has proven unwilling to allow any space for the growth of alternative sources of political power and has shown no respect to the notion of civilian politics. And the international climate has shifted in such a way to minimise the potential downside costs and friction associated with any such moves.”

The Guardian

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