Egypt extends voting by a day in latest bid to boost low turnout

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is likely to win the presidential election by a landslide, but a large turnout is critical to his legitimacy. Egypt took extreme steps to encourage voting.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Election officials wait for voters inside a polling station on the second day of voting in the Egyptian election in Cairo on May 27, 2014. Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to emerge as Egypt's next head of state, returning the presidency to a military man as hopes for democracy fade three years after Hosni Mubarak's downfall.

Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's well-oiled campaign machine stuttered through a two-day vote that was meant to be the smoothest stretch in his rise to high office -- it was announced late Tuesday that polls would stay open for one more day to encourage better turnout.

Instead of celebrating a nationwide stampede to the polls, Egyptian authorities spent the second day of the presidential election pulling out all the stops to boost sluggish voter turnout, estimated at less than 15 percent on Monday by officials from his challenger's campaign.

Today was declared a public holiday, with voting hours extended and transport fares suspended. Even the capital's biggest mall was closed. But it wasn't enough, and polling stations will remain open Wednesday.

In a vote that has often resembled a coronation more than a contest, high turnout is crucial to the legitimacy of the results. Early returns show Mr. Sisi winning by a landslide. But the low turnout indicates that a large swath of voters – far more than just the Islamists who have been pushed underground – are not convinced the former military chief can fulfill his promises of security, stability, and economic growth in the deeply divided country. 

Sisi’s supporters see him as a decisive leader whose military coup saved the nation from the unpopular Muslim Brotherhood last year, which ousted elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. “He’s the only man for the situation,” says stationery shop owner Adel Aguib. “I’ve voted for a man who protected this country.”

In southern Cairo’s working class Helwan district, voters expressed near-universal support. “I love Sisi more than anyone,” says Mustafa Muhamed, flashing a peace sign with his ink-stained fingers. “He has done things that no one else has done for Egypt.”

But away from the raucous crowds of Sisi supporters at polling stations, there is unease about the type of security Sisi has brought. The July coup has been followed by an unprecedented crackdown against both Islamist and secular dissenting voices. More than 16,000 people have been arrested, according to officials, and at least 2,000 killed by security forces. Other sources say the number arrested may be as high as 40,000. 

“I’ve been working in this government for 30 years, and I know what they want for themselves,” says a state employee who asked not to be named out of concern for his safety. “He says he will be strong and fight terrorism, but that means [he will fight] anything in his way – not just the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Yesterday families lined up in subdued queues outside Cairo's prisons to visit imprisoned relatives. Many outside the notorious Tora prison said the crackdown had persuaded them not to vote.

“My friends’ blood has been spilled, and now more are in prison,” says Sarah Mohamed, a journalism student whose hopes of visiting three friends were dashed when the government proclaimed today a public holiday, meaning the prison gates stayed shut.

“It would go against all my values to vote, I cannot give [Sisi] that legitmacy after all that has happened," she says.

But in a sign of how deep Egypt’s divisions reach, they have cleaved families as well. One man, whose brother was imprisoned for demonstrating without a government permit, says Sisi is "the only one who will cleanse the country of terrorists." He appeared to be referring to the Brotherhood, who some secular families blame for the fact that the crackdown has reached their homes.

Sisi's first task will be to smooth divisions between his diverse voter base, ranging from working class voters to liberal elites, and the Islamist and secular victims of the 10-month crackdown. The challenge will be exacerbated by an ailing economy, a police force acting with near impunity, and a growing Islamist insurgency responsible for the deaths of hundreds of security personnel.

Sisi's supporters remain convinced that he is the man for the job.

“I’m here to prove that Sisi has come to power legitimately, and this was not a coup,” says Heba Rashid, a doctor, who had come to vote in Cairo's upscale verdict of Maadi. “We want this, and we are the majority here.”

Additional reporting by Deyya Adel

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