Egyptian elections more a patriotic celebration than a contested race

Voter turnout represents important political capital for Sisi as he enters a second term in office.
Sunday 01/04/2018
An Egyptian youth walks past a polling station in Cairo’s western Giza district, on March 25. (AFP)
Looking ahead. An Egyptian youth walks past a polling station in Cairo’s western Giza district, on March 25. (AFP)

CAIRO - With the end of voting and reports that 90% of ballots had been counted, the main issue regarding Egypt’s 2018 presidential election was not whether incumbent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would be re-elected but what percentage of eligible voters headed to the polls.

There were major fears that low voter turnout would embarrass Egypt. Turnout for Egypt’s 2014 presidential elections, which Sisi won with more than 97% of the vote, was 47.5%. In 2012, turnout in the first round was 46% and 52% in the election run-off.

There is hope that voter turnout in 2018 would be close to the last two presidential elections but not the 2005 vote, in which turnout was estimated at about 25%.

Scenes of queues outside polls places indicate significant voter turnout and Mahmud al-Sherif, deputy head of the National Election Authority (NEA), the independent body of judges that oversees the vote, described turnout as “respectable.”  The NEA said 59.7 million Egyptians were eligible to vote.

With little uncertainty about the outcome of the vote, the election effectively turned into a 3-day national celebration with voters singing patriotic songs and waving flags outside polling stations.

Voter turnout represents important political capital for Sisi as he enters a second term in office. During his campaign, he repeatedly called on Egyptians to vote in large numbers.

“The whole world is watching and when you cast your ballots, it will know that it is the people who rule this country, not anybody else,” Sisi said during the Mother’s Day celebration.

Voter turnout was likely bolstered by an NEA statement confirming that it would seek to levy fines on eligible voters who fail to cast ballots, as the law allows, “without an excuse.”

Voter apathy was due to a lack of electoral competition after major political opposition figures were unable to stand in the elections.  Former army chief of staff Sami Anan was arrested after his candidacy was deemed to be against military rules. Political opposition figures such as former MP Mohammed Anwar Sadat and human rights lawyer Khalid Ali said they would not stand, citing political conditions in the country.

The requirement that presidential candidates must have endorsements from 25,000 eligible voters in 15 of Egypt’s 27 provinces for their nomination application to be accepted by the NEA is seen as too stringent for many. Alternately, candidates are eligible to stand with the backing of 20 members of parliament, something that was impossible after almost all MPs endorsed Sisi.

Even al-Ghad party and its leader Moussa Mostafa Moussa — Sisi’s eventual electoral rival — had announced backing for Sisi’s re-election.

Before the election, all the parties declared support for Sisi, including Moussa’s. Al-Ghad backpedalled and placed its leader in candidacy when Sisi’s potential rivals pulled out.

It was this massive parliamentary support that has led many political observers to question whether Egypt’s political parties can produce new leaders.

“The political parties are incapable of doing this because they are crippled with problems,” said Salah Hasaballah, the head of the liberal Freedom Party. “Most of the parties do not have convincing programmes or charismatic leaders who can attract supporters to them.”

Sisi said he should not be responsible for the lack of competitors.

“You blame me for something I did not cause,” Sisi said in a presidential campaign documentary. “We appealed to the political parties more than once to field candidates, but the parties are not ready.”

There are more than 100 political parties in Egypt, most of which appeared after the 2011 revolution. Despite this, fewer than 20 parties are represented in parliament and most of those have just a handful of members of parliament. There are 200 MPs affiliated to political parties in Egypt’s parliament compared to 251 independents.

Apart from the lack of leaders and programmes that can appeal to voters, political parties need funding to promote themselves, political party heads said.

“The parties are self-funded, mainly depending on subscriptions paid by members,” said Nagui al-Shehabi, the head of the liberal Geel (Generation) Party. “The parties are not allowed to raise funds or receive donations.”

There have been calls, including from Sisi, for Egypt’s political parties to merge.

Saad al-Zunt, head of the local think-tank Political and Strategic Studies Centre, said it was time Egypt’s political parties considered the merger issue, particularly if they want to ensure a stronger presence at forthcoming elections.

“Political party leaders must face the realities,” Zunt said. “They can only have a presence and carve a niche for themselves on the political stage through unity.”