CAIRO – “Where are the people?” one talk show host on a military station shouted as Egypt on Tuesday extended its presidential election to a third day in an apparent drive to raise voter turnout and avoid an embarrassingly meagre show of support for former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Throughout the day, officials and supporters of el-Sissi, the expected winner, exhorted voters to go to the polls.
Scenes of empty polling stations drove el-Sissi supporters on the country’s TV stations into a lather, and they scolded Egyptians for not turning out.
Opponents said the turnout showed the depth of discontent with el-Sissi, not just among his Islamist foes but among a broader section of the public that says he has no solutions for the country’s woes and fears he will return Egypt to the autocratic ways of Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in 2011 after 29 years in power.
There has never been any doubt that the 59-year-old el-Sissi would win over his sole opponent, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.
But he and his backers have sought a big victory to send a message to the West — as well as to his domestic opponents — that his ouster last summer of Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was not a coup but a popular revolution. Millions took to the streets in protests against Morsi before el-Sissi removed him.
For the past 10 months, the government and media have been whipping up adulation for el-Sissi, depicting him as the country’s saviour. They have praised his crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist supporters, a campaign that has killed hundreds and put thousands in prison.
Some voters called him the only man capable of ruling.
“We want Egypt, and el-Sissi is Egypt,” said 40-year-old Seham Sayed, one of around a dozen women waiting at a polling station in the heavily populated district of Imbaba.
The head of the election commission told the MBC-Misr TV station that early estimates put turnout at 35 per cent of the nearly 54 million voters in the first two days of voting. That would be a significant drop from the 2012 election that Morsi won, which had a turnout of just under 52 per cent.
The Brotherhood called for a boycott of this election, and most of their supporters stayed away from the polls. But many beyond the ranks of the Islamists didn’t vote either.
In his campaign, el-Sissi offered few concrete solutions for Egypt’s devastated economy and scolded Egyptians to make sacrifices. He touted his military discipline and made clear he would tolerate no dissent that could undermine stability.
Some said his campaign suggested an arrogance that took voters for granted. He made only TV appearances and didn’t venture into the streets.
“Why would I go and vote and give them legitimacy when they actually didn’t respect me?” Loai Omran, an architect, said of the el-Sissi camp. “They didn’t respect the constitution. … They didn’t respect human rights.”
A 44-year-old farmer, Ramadan, said el-Sissi paid little attention to his trade— and he didn’t like the heavy presence of Mubarak-era officials backing el-Sissi.
“Look around who is going out for him — men of the (former) ruling party. Nothing has changed,” he said, speaking on condition he be identified only by his first name for fear of trouble from neighbours.
Sabahi’s campaign, citing its representatives at polling stations, estimated turnout on the first day at only 10 to 15 per cent. It called the weak voting a “clear message by the people and youth … rejecting the attempt to bring back old regime policies.”
The election commission portrayed its decision to extend the voting as a response to demands by would-be voters. Commission officials said that they received complaints about the extreme heat and about migrant workers prevented from voting because of rules that make it difficult to cast ballots away from one’s hometown.
Sabahi’s campaign protested the extension, saying it raised questions about the election’s integrity and seemed aimed at “interfering in numbers and participation rates.” Perhaps to ward off criticism, El-Sissi’s campaign also raised an official objection to the extension, insisting it was not needed.
Nesrine Mahmoud, a 34-year-old housewife from a poor Cairo neighbourhood, said she “loved” el-Sissi as a military man and for his removal of Morsi. But she voted for Sabahi.
She said she grew disillusioned with el-Sissi during his campaign, especially the way he shot down any criticism during interviews and offered her no concrete program to solve economic problems.
“How would there be democracy that way?” she asked.