Signs of low turnout prompt move in presidential election as favourite Abdel Fatah al-Sisi seeks to show country’s backing.
Egypt has declared a national holiday, in an apparent effort to encourage a higher turnout in the second and final day of its ongoing presidential election.
Ex-army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is expected to easily win Tuesday’s election but he and his supporters are seeking a respectable turnout to prove he has the country’s overwhelming support.
Sisi faces a single opponent – the veteran workers’ activist Hamdeen Sabahi – after several would-be candidates pulled out of the race, citing the impossibility of campaigning amid a crackdown on dissent. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose Mohamed Morsi was removed as president by Sisi last summer, is boycotting the race.
Sisi voted on Monday in the upmarket neighbourhood of Heliopolis – his first public appearance of the campaign in which he rarely strayed from his Cairo headquarters for security reasons. A rights group reported that Sisi’s bodyguards foiled an attempt by a voter to assault him at the polling station – though his team later said the assailant was attempting to hug him, not hurt him.
Sisi – the head of military intelligence under Hosni Mubarak – has the vocal backing of the army’s top generals, Egypt’s business elite, and almost all media outlets, who have portrayed voting for Sisi as a patriotic duty. At least 16,000 of his opponents are in jail, including the Muslim Brotherhood leaders he ousted last summer and many secular figureheads of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Sisi has the support of a significant section of the population, who praise him for overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi last July. His actions won support from Morsi’s opponents, many of whom also see a return to a strongman era as the only solution to more than three years of political and economic chaos which followed Mubarak’s ousting.
“He has rescued the Egyptian people,” said Amal Abdel Hady, a 40-year-old teacher voting in Matariya, a northern Cairo suburb racked by political violence in recent months. “We have big hopes for him – he will save politics, the economy, transportation.”
But other supporters tempered their expectations. Wearied by the broken promises of the 2011 revolution, they praised him for his realistic approach to Egypt’s many challenges. “We’re fed up with broken promises,” said Fotouh Mohamed, a 60-year-old factory owner voting near Sisi’s childhood home in old Cairo. “We just want a strongman.”
There was a festive atmosphere at polling stations on Monday, with some voters dancing to pro-military songs and ululating after casting their ballot. One woman described the day as a national “wedding”, while state media claimed that another gave birth in a polling station in Alexandria and named the child Sisi.
But away from the euphoria there were signs that the turnout was lower than hoped for – seemingly leading the government to make an eleventh-hour decision on Monday night to declare Tuesday a national holiday.
According to initial figures, Sisi has already received more than 90% of overseas votes, though what proportion of expatriates voted is not yet clear. A recent poll conducted by Pew Research suggested only a slim majority of Egyptians (54%) back Sisi – although independent poll experts warned that such data is often unreliable in Egypt.
Sisi’s one challenger, Sabahi, has billed himself as the candidate of Egypt’s revolution – and says Sisi’s opponents should vote for him to preserve what little political space remains in Egypt.
“We’re not going to stand aside and wait for the situation to be ideal,” he told the Guardian in an interview on Sunday. “We have to take part to make it ideal ourselves.”
On Monday, very few voters would admit to heeding Sabahi’s call, although many may have wanted to keep their allegiances private. One man was attacked by other voters after disclosing his preference for Sabahi, while the candidate’s campaign confirmed that at least one of their team had been arrested.
But many of Sisi’s critics may simply have stayed at home, with some saying they see no point in validating what they consider a bogus process. They argue the election is simply a means of formally bestowing power on a man who has run the show behind the scenes since last July.
“I have been to the election boxes in the last three years more than five times, and all of these were destroyed simply by the army tanks,” said Mohamed Abdou, a 33-year-old telecoms engineer, who is boycotting this week’s election. “So why should I go this time? It’s not logical.”
The Brotherhood’s political wing used sectarianism to discourage its members from participation – claiming in a Facebook post that voters would largely be Christians or Mubarak supporters.
In a speech broadcast before polls opened, Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, said that the state was neutral in the race. “The state’s official institutions, foremost of which the Egyptian presidency, stand at an equal distance from the two candidates and will not influence the choice of the citizens in any direction,” said Mansour, a judge installed by Sisi after Morsi’s removal.