A voter casts her ballot in Sayyeda Zeinab during presidential elections. May 26, 2014
Photo by: 
Virginie Nguyen

Pundits wring hands over low voter turnout

Voting was still open on the first day of the presidential election, and television presenters were already panicking over the noticeably low turnout.

On Monday evening, talk show hosts turned their wrath on Egyptians for not going out to vote, exhorting them to take to the polls and “save the situation.”

The prime minister himself appeared on television late Monday to declare that Tuesday, the second and ostensibly final day of voting, would be a holiday for the public sector, although the Cabinet had previously assured the public that banks would stay open during the polls. Following suit, the Egyptian Exchange decided to suspend trading on Tuesday and reopen the next day.

But by noon on Tuesday, it was apparent that the day off from work did little to help matters, and so anxious members of the media continued to complain about Egyptians choosing to sleep in instead of casting their ballots.

The reasons underlying the harsh criticisms varied. In his program “Al-Qahera Al-Youm” (Cairo Today), airing on the privately owned Al Yawm channel, talk show host Amr Adib claimed it was dangerous if only 8 or 10 million people voted, since such a low turnout would weaken the roadmap imposed by the army-backed interim government following former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.

A low turnout was tantamount to releasing “Morsi from prison and bringing him back to power, because the people did not agree on the roadmap,” Adib warned.

Journalist Mostafa Bakry went even further. The former MP and staunch Armed Forces supporter gained notoriety earlier this year when his televised rant inciting violence against Americans went viral worldwide.

“We are in a state of war and the turnout is [important],” Bakry declared. “If the turnout is low, we will face problems with external enemies and internal traitors, and the people should be up to the responsibility.”

“Whoever does not vote is giving the kiss of life to the terrorists, and giving the Americans and the West the justification to comment on June 30,” Bakry avowed. Highlighting the situation in Libya and Syria, he almost hysterically advised, “Go out, even if you [invalidate] your vote, just go out. Otherwise, you are a traitor.”

Some of the pundits verged insulting their audiences.

“You’ve been annoying us for 60 years about not being able to express your opinions,” Adib reprimanded.

Controversial talk show host Tawfiq Okasha, known for his virulently pro-army opinions, said in an interview with his colleague Hayat al-Dardiry that “Egyptians are happy that they are being smacked on the back of their heads.”

For his part, Ibrahim Eissa, co-founder of the privately owned Al-Dostour newspaper and current editor of the privately owned Al-Tahrir, said the low turnout was an indication that the campaigns of both candidates, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabbahi, have no real “electoral bodies.”

It is also an indication that “Sisi is not supported by state institutions or the men of the old regime, as it was propagated. Sisi and his campaign depended only on his popularity without any real mobilization,” Eissa added.

The High Elections Commission (HEC) warned that it would implement the LE500 fines stipulated in the Elections Law for eligible voters who don't participate in the election. The names of those who didn’t cast their ballots would be reported to the general prosecution and fines would then be collected, the commission warned.

A similar decision was made during a referendum over constitutional amendments in 2011 shortly after former President Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power, but was never executed.

The media mania continued on Tuesday morning as more talk show hosts urged citizens to vote, while eyewitnesses reported seeing cars armed with microphones touring different areas of Cairo, like Al-Marg and Ezbet al-Nakhl, encouraging citizens to come to the polling stations.

Some of these cars were even directly calling citizens to vote for Sisi. In many cases, voters were offered free transportation to polling stations in different areas, including Imbaba.

The state-owned news site EgyNews attributed low voter turnout in the Cairo district of Maadi to the heat, while also quoting a judge who explained that poor distribution of polling stations could also be to blame.

“There is a huge distance between where voters live and the locations of the polling stations. This could waste around 5 million votes for outsiders,” the judge claimed.

To try and facilitate voter participation, Minister of Transportation Ibrahim al-Demery issued an amnesty on fines for railway users who hopped on trains without tickets to “ease the conditions for those who wish to vote.”

Aly Fadaly, head of the company that operates Cairo’s metro system, also promised to wave fines for passengers with no tickets on voting days.

The spokesperson of the Justice Ministry’s operation room for elections monitoring, Abdel Azim al-Eshary, urged citizens to vote before the polls close at 10 pm on Tuesday in order to surpass turnout in the 2012 presidential election, when 25 million voters participated.

Sisi’s official campaign did not release any statements concerning the low turnout. But other, unofficial Facebook pages supporting the former military leader leaked a photo of him watching the elections coverage, with commentators lamenting how dismayed Sisi seemed by the low turnout.

The Facebook page blamed election boycotters for Sisi’s sadness.

By early Tuesday evening, though, the HEC played its last card to get out the vote by deciding to keep the polls open on Wednesday.