Egyptians head to the polls amid tight security
CAIRO - Egyptians head to the polls to vote in presidential elections with little question over the outcome but trepidation over voter turnout.
Incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to easily defeat Moussa Mostafa Moussa, head of the centrist al-Ghad Party in the March 26-28 election. The question is whether voter participation among Egypt’s 59 million eligible voters will eclipse the 2014 elections, which Sisi won with 97% of the vote in a turnout of only 47.5%.
“Voter participation will make the election a success, regardless of who the voters will choose,” said Mahmoud el-Sherif, the deputy head of the National Election Authority (NEA), the independent group of judges overseeing the vote. “We have confidence that everybody in Egypt understands this reality, which is why we are optimistic about the turnout.”
The election comes after Egyptians living outside the country voted. Long queues of Egyptian nationals formed outside Egyptian embassies and consulates in countries where Egypt has large expat communities, giving hope that domestic polling would exceed expectations.
Sisi, 63, is seeking a second presidential term to complete projects, including mega infrastructure programmes, as well as painful economic reforms that he said are necessary to rescue the economy.
Sisi appealed to Egyptians to vote.
“Your participation will show the world that this country has a people who make decisions,” Sisi said in a televised address March 21, on the occasion of the country’s Mother’s Day celebration. “If all voters participate, this will be a great thing, even if they do not select me to be president.”
He vowed, if he lost the election, to peacefully transfer power to the winner. Few, however, expect Moussa to be a major impediment to Sisi’s re-election hopes, particularly given that he had earlier backed Sisi before filing as a last-minute candidate.
Moussa, 65 and a civil engineer by profession, is little known to the general public. A nationwide election campaign that has seen rallies and television ads failed to raise his election hopes.
“The fact that the result of the election is known beforehand can discourage some people from showing up at the polling stations,” said Amr Hashem Rabie, a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “This is why I think, and I hope to be wrong, that the voter turnout will not be that great.”
Sisi’s most serious rivals dropped from the presidential race before it started for various reasons. Former candidate Ahmed Shafiq withdrew in early January just a few days after declaring a presidential bid.
Former army chief of staff Sami Anan was arrested in January for violating army rules on election candidacy, forcing him to end his campaign.
Former presidential candidate and human rights lawyer Khalid Ali said he would not be standing after failing to collect sufficient endorsements from voters to establish a mooted bid.
“I had hoped that ten strong candidates would run against me but this is something I cannot do anything about,” Sisi said in a campaign documentary. “We called on political parties to submit candidates but the parties are not ready yet.”
There are more than 100 political parties in Egypt but most refused to field candidates against Sisi. While high-profile opposition figures, like Ali, found their attempts to run stymied by stringent registration criteria that required either the recommendation of at least 20 members of parliament or 25,000 citizens from 15 governorates, with a minimum of 1,000 recommendations from each governorate.
Sisi did not announce an electoral programme but said that economic reforms he started over the past four years would pay off during his second term.
He took office at a time of high political, economic and security uncertainty, a year after Islamist President Muhammad Morsi was ousted by a popular uprising that was backed by the army.
Sisi is credited for improving the economy, bringing security back to the streets and bringing Egypt’s relations with most of the world back on track.
Moussa said he had a programme that would solve many of Egypt’s problems, focusing particularly on youth unemployment.
In a previous interview with The Arab Weekly, Moussa faulted Sisi for focusing on projects with long-term payoffs rather than seeking to immediately fix ongoing problems.
The NEA has said it would send 18,620 officials to polling stations in Egypt’s 27 provinces to oversee voting, vote counting and the declaration of election results. Vote counting was to start immediately after the election ends March 28, with the results announced April 2.
The election takes place while Egypt is fighting a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai and wages a battle to restructure the economy.
ISIS released a video February 12 in which it ordered militants to target polling stations in Egypt during the election. This may explain the announced deployment of tens of thousands of army troops and policemen outside polling stations.
“Measures taken to safeguard the vote give confidence to voters that there will be no security problems,” said Saeed al-Lawindy, a researcher from Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “This gives me confidence also that the election turnout will be very high.”