Voting begins in an election all but certain to hand Egypt’s president a second term
In an election all but certain to hand Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi a second term, the focus Monday was on whether people would bother to cast ballots as three days of voting got underway.
Sisi and his supporters urged Egyptians to flock to polling stations, presenting participation as a national duty. They hope a strong turnout will give the outcome a measure of credibility after any serious challengers were arrested or pressured to withdraw from the race.
Authorities also clamped down on the media and critics of the government in the run-up to the vote.
The only other name on the ballot is a relatively obscure politician, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who leads the centrist Ghad party and is an ardent supporter of the president.
In central districts of the capital, Cairo, some voters were already lined up outside polling stations before they opened at 9 a.m. Other locations were quiet for much of the day, although voting picked up in the evening, after people got out of work.
Most, it seemed, were there to support Sisi.
“There’s no alternative,” said George Hathout, 70, who cast his ballot at a school in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek.
“We are fighting against terror,” Hathout said, speaking loudly to be heard over the patriotic songs blaring from loud speakers outside his polling station, where several men danced and waved the Egyptian flag.
Sisi, he said, “is a soldier first … He knows how to fight.”
Hathout conceded, however, that he knew little about the other contender in the race, a businessman who barely campaigned after submitting his candidacy hours before a January deadline.
“It doesn’t matter who wins as long as Egypt remains safe,” Moussa was quoted as saying by the Associated Press after casting his ballot in Abdeen, in Cairo’s historic core.
Sisi also voted Monday but did not address reporters.
Despite a heavy military and police presence, there was a celebratory mood outside a number of polling stations.
Mona Shalaby, 70, beamed as she emerged from a downtown school, waving a pink ink-stained finger to show she had voted. She said she had arrived early to be one of the first to vote for Sisi and declared herself “very happy.”
Egypt’s National Elections Authority reported “high participation” in the cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Giza, as well as in governorates including North Sinai, where the military is fighting an Islamist insurgency. Officials provided no figures, however.
Analysts expect many among Egypt’s 59 million eligible voters to stay away from the polls, either out of apathy or in response to calls for a boycott by some of the president’s opponents.
Just over 47% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2014, despite a decision to add a third day of voting and the declaration of a last-minute public holiday. Although the turnout was respectable by the standards of most Western countries, it fell short of the 80% Sisi himself had said he hoped for. He garnered 97% of the vote against a lone challenger.
Many Egyptians see Sisi as a bastion of stability after years of political and economic turmoil following massive street protests in 2011 that toppled the country’s former strongman, Hosni Mubarak, and galvanized “Arab Spring” uprisings across the region.
Sisi’s government has vowed to crush Islamist extremists, including a branch of Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula blamed for deadly attacks against the country’s security forces, Coptic Christian minority and a Sufi Muslim mosque.
He also has enacted needed economic reforms — including lifting currency controls and imposing painful subsidy cuts — that earned Egypt a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
But if unsanctioned street protests have largely disappeared, it is likely because of a sweeping crackdown on dissent. Since Morsi was driven from office, thousands of his Muslim Brotherhood followers have been jailed along with leading secular activists. Others are in hiding or fled the country.
“It is a game,” a 25-year-old Cairo office worker said of this week’s election, explaining why she stayed home and won’t be voting. She said she doesn’t see any difference between Sisi and Moussa. Regardless of who you pick, she said, “you will choose the same person.”
Like others who were critical of the election, she asked to be identified by one name, Engy, out of fear of recriminations.
Another woman, speaking outside a polling station in Abdeen, said she had just spoiled her ballot in protest at the lack of choice. She put a cross next to Sisi’s name rather than the required check mark.
“I might have picked Sisi if there was more than one candidate,” said the 26-year-old petroleum company worker, “if I had the option to choose, instead of being forced to do so.”
Special correspondent Islam reported from Cairo, and Times staff writer Zavis from Beirut.
12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from voters and reports of voting picking up in the evening.
This article was originally published at 8:15 a.m.
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