Egypt: An extra polling day but still hardly anyone wants to vote

Sisi will be ‘elected’ Egypt’s President. But he wants a show of genuine support in the ballot – and he’s not getting it

Wednesday was not an extra day for Egyptians to vote. It was an attempt – desperate, one has to say – by retired Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to restore his overconfident opinion of himself and his ambition to be elected President by 60 per cent of Egyptian voters.

Napoleon will win the election. Have no doubt of that. But empty polling booths tell their own story.

A three-hour drive around the election stations of central Cairo – and this, remember, was a public holiday to induce even more of that spontaneous and popular support that dictators adore – produced a bleak political picture for the man who told his people on Monday that “Egyptians are coming out to write their history and chart their future”.

In Giza, the schools that opened for voters on Monday morning, both in the slums (crushed Dickensian apartments with sewage outside the front doors) and among the lower-middle-class districts (more filthy roads, crumbling terraces, cheap concrete blocks), were deserted. On the island of Gezira, home to the literati and the fallen business leaders of Cairo, three soldiers and two cops lounged outside the polling station. In one district, I found an armed soldier wearing a black ski mask; but he, too, was guarding an empty building.

Even in Heliopolis, home to Sisi himself and old Mubarak, before the 2011 revolution, there was not a single voter to be found. I hunted down the very electoral station where Adly Mansour, the “interim President”, had personally voted two days ago, in a well-appointed street of small mansions, surrounded by advertisements for jewellers and laser clinics. Same story: four soldiers, three policemen, armed plain-clothes cops in a van belonging to a tourist company, but not one miserable voter to be seen.

That’s how bad it was. Reports from Alexandria and Port Said were no more optimistic for the ex-general and in towns such as Kerdasa – where mobs burned down the local police station and killed 13 officers in revenge for the security forces’ mass slaughter of around 700 Muslim Brotherhood members last August – scarcely a man or woman voted in all of three days. Portraits of Mohamed Morsi, imprisoned but still legally the President of Egypt in the eyes of his Brotherhood supporters, Qatar and Turkey, were newly glued to the walls.

Sisi can claim any kind of majority he wants in the election, of course, however many people actually vote; these things can be “fixed” in Egypt. In the days of Anwar Sadat, boxes of inconvenient votes were traditionally tossed into the politically neutral waters of the Nile. A population inured to the cynicism of dictatorship expected little else. But Egyptians are not stupid and they lost their fear in the 2011 revolution, and no amount of threats and bribes can turn a majority of adults into schoolchildren again.

Sisi, still lauded in the sycophantic Cairo press as the country’s saviour who promised his economically crushed people even more austerity – a mistake, if ever there was one – insists the election is squeaky clean. Why, only yesterday we were informed that both he and his hopeless presidential competitor, Hamdeen Sabahi, opposed the extension of voting by an extra day.

Compliant television presenters were more to the point. News shows broadcast queues at polling stations – where did they find them? – and those Egyptians who had not voted were “traitors to their country”, viewers were told.

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The “interim Prime Minister”, Ibrahim Mehleb, announced that the law requiring eligible voters to go to polling stations – and which fines them £50 if they fail to do so – would be fully implemented. It made no difference. A vast number of voters – perhaps 80 per cent, perhaps 60 per cent – appear to have decided that they would not lend their names to the man who claimed that his military coup last year was a continuation of the revolution.

Supporters of the Brotherhood, now banned as a “terrorist” organisation by Sisi, obviously did not vote. “I stayed at home and we are frightened,” one of them – a paper-seller from Giza – remarked. He would only explain his views if we met for dinner, he said. Invitation accepted.

But there was something utterly inevitable in the words of Tariq Said who works for a Cairo catering company. He wears a golden star, Sisi’s electoral symbol, and agreed that he voted for the ex-general out of economic necessity.

“Two of my brothers are without work since the [2011] revolution,” he said. “I try to help and give them money – they were in the construction business. If you ask Egyptians who do they like, they don’t care. They want someone who can give them jobs and allow them to have a good life.”

Could Sisi do that? “Yes,” Said said, “because the Gulf countries have promised they will give Sisi a lot of money. I’ve no problem with Morsi – but why didn’t he tell his protesters to go home after last year’s takeover. He only wanted martyrs.”

Morsi’s overthrow and perhaps those “martyrs” have divided Egyptians. But maybe there are three sides in Egypt.

There are those who voted for Morsi in 2012 – more than 51 per cent, a figure that might now be devoutly to be wished by Sisi for himself – and those who support Sisi today, who may indeed be 80 per cent of the pitifully small number of voters who have turned out these past three days. But there may be a far larger block of Egyptians, no longer cowed by official threats and the taunts of television frontmen, who do not wish to legitimise Sisi’s presidency or sign their country over to yet another military tough guy.

Two years ago all this was advertised as an Arab Spring – not a Spring for Generals.