According to Egyptian state television on Tuesday, voting in the country’s ongoing presidential election will be extended to a third day, until Wednesday May 28 after reports of low voter turnout in the highly anticipated contest. The announcement came after the government declared Tuesday a national holiday in an apparent bid to encourage higher turnout. The government’s growing panic over the lackluster showing at the polls is growing obvious as desperate last minute efforts to boost turnout ramp up.
Amid these last minute changes to the voting period are also more underhanded efforts by the government. Election officials have previously threatened to enforce a fine of over 500 Egyptian pounds (about $72) on non-voters. And, on Tuesday, there were also reports that the country’s high electoral commission would be referring non-voters to public prosecution. The ludicrous threat, which was apparently aired on at least one popular television station, points to the desperation of the military-led government in its bid for electoral legitimacy.
While there is no doubt that army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will walk away victorious, the scale of his victory is clearly an important priority for the leader. Sisi has been calling for a record turnout at the polls for weeks now — a call that has been echoed fervently by his political backers and his many supporters in the media. Pro-government talk show hosts have been almost singularly focused on the turnout issue in the run-up to the election with one popular television personality, the admittedly histrionic Tawfik Okasha, even declaring “I kiss your feet and beg you to go out and vote . . . What else do you want? Do you want me to strip naked and beg?”
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab has touted turnout at over 30% after reports of a 10-15% turnout by observers from the campaign of Sisi’s presidential opponent. Even taking the government’s figure at face value, it is still easy to see why the military-backed government is growing so anxious. Sisi needs his victory to emerge from an election with historic turnout levels to legitimize his presidency. The question of legitimacy is a key one as Sisi’s political ascension came about following the military coup against democratically-elected former president Mohammed Morsi. Sisi has thus far been able to justify his political decisions (including the coup against Morsi) by drawing on this vague idea of the “will of the people.” The protests that led up to the military coup last July were billed as the biggest Egypt had ever seen — even larger than those that led to the fall of former strongman Hosni Mubarak. Sisi even justified his decision to run for president as an acquiescence to popular demand.
That the turnout of this current round of voting appears to be paling in comparison to that of Egypt’s other elections following its 2011 uprising — including the election that brought Morsi to power — is understandable cause for concern for Sisi and his backers. The hard numbers undermine the entire narrative around the leader’s ascension in addition to discrediting the claim that his ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood reflected his compliance with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians. As Islamists and other Sisi opponents sit out this election, the prospect of low voter turnout not only threatens to cloud the army chief’s expected victory — it also serves as a powerful if silent reminder of the considerable segments of the Egyptian population that remain unmoved by their future leader. A leader who will have bigger problems than proving his legitimacy at the other end of these elections.