Egyptians stage mass boycott of presidential poll

Observers say turnout may only be 15 per cent as youth groups mobilise against the poll. Alastair Beach reports from Cairo

The most important election in Egypt's modern history was in danger of sparking new a backlash against the country's establishment last night as many voters appeared to shun both candidates and disillusioned youth groups spearheaded a nationwide campaign to void the poll.

Observers said many polling stations had seen barely a trickle of voters over the past two days – a stark contrast to previous elections this year, when large numbers of people queued for hours to cast ballots.

Outside one school in the western Cairo suburb of Dokki yesterday morning, television reporters appeared at one point to outnumber voters. When an army officer was asked by The Independent how many people had arrived to vote, he pointed mockingly towards the gate and said: "Look. Can you see any voters?"

In an election which has pitted two highly polarising candidates against each other – the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak's last Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik – there has been mounting outrage among many political groups over the paucity of options on offer. The trend has manifested itself most starkly with a high-profile campaign to encourage voters to spoil their ballot papers. Orchestrated through a group called Mobteloon, whose name means "nullifiers" in Arabic, many voters have voided their ballots in a bid to register their disillusionment. "The future president will not have any legitimacy," said Mohamed Ghoneim, one of the founders of Mobteloon. "We are building a revolutionary front against whoever comes next."

In theory, all spoiled ballots should be included in the final count. Mr Ghoneim said the aim of the Mobteloon movement was to use these ballots to generate a springboard for a second uprising targeting the next President and Egypt's military establishment.

Official turnout figures were not released yesterday, but electoral observers it could be as low as 15 per cent. From an electorate of 50 million, that would mean Egypt's next President had been chosen from a total of about seven million votes. "We think the turnout definitely did not exceed 15 per cent," said Sherine el-Touny, of the Egyptian monitoring body Shayfeencom. "Even if it was 30 per cent, that would mean we had seen 17 million voters on the streets, but I don't think we saw that today."

Another organisation monitoring the poll, a committee from Egypt's Lawyers' Syndicate legal union, also said it believed the overall turnout was about 15 per cent.

Many blamed the scorching summer heat, with temperatures in Cairo soaring to nearly 40C yesterday. There was speculation that with voting hours extended until 10pm last night, the numbers of people entering polling stations would pick up by the evening. Yet other factors are at play. Following a tumultuous 18 months, which was initially infused with widespread optimism following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians feel they have been betrayed by the presidential choices now on offer.

A result is expected within the next few days, with the authorities nervous that it could send protesters spilling back on to the streets. On the one hand is Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood mandarin who can depend on legions of well-drilled followers, but who is detested by millions fearful of his Islamic agenda.

On the other there is Ahmed Shafik. The former fighter pilot is believed to have the backing of the military and is beloved by those Egyptians who want a return to order after 18 months of chaos. Many Christians have also identified him as the candidate who is the best person to protect their interests. Yet Mr Shafik is also distrusted by huge numbers of Egyptians. Many remember his brief stint as Prime Minister during the notorious "battle of the camel" last year, when groups of Mubarak supporters charged into Tahrir Square on horseback and camels to attack anti-government demonstrators.

"We have no choice at all," said Eid Muhamed, who works in a tea house in the dirt-poor Cairo district of Boulaq. "Both of them are awful."

There is also the military to consider. After the controversial dissolution of parliament last week, the generals have underlined their position as the eminence grise of Egyptian politics. Given the ruling council's alleged ties with both candidates – Mr Shafik was a former colleague, while many revolutionaries believe, without much hard evidence, that Mr Morsi has cut a deal with the ruling council to secure the presidency – the power of Egypt's single most influential institution will lurk behind the candidate who finally ends up claiming the presidency.