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Sugar, rice and everything nice: Mobilizing voter turnout in Egypt’s presidential election
 
 
Photograph: مصطفى محيي
 

While President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and members of his campaign have spoken sparsely on his sole competitor in the current presidential election, much has been said about the importance of securing a high turnout.

Preparing to embark on his second presidential term after the election results, widely presumed to be predetermined, Sisi has called on citizens to head to the polls in order to send a message to the world. State bureaucrats, businessmen and private institutions are working together to ensure that this message is successfully delivered by providing the electorate with an array of incentives in exchange for their vote.

Ink for wages

Officials across a number of state institutions have put measures in place to ensure employees’ participation in the 2018 presidential election. Several companies divided their workforce into three groups, with each going to vote on one of the three election days, in order to guarantee that employees’ trips to the polls do not hamper productivity.

Management at the state-owned Petrotrade company had the employees whose turn it was to go to the polls sign in their attendance to work in the morning, then head to cast their votes, Salma*, an employee at the company, told Mada Masr. The employees were told that their time away from the workplace would only be counted as a paid workday if they proved their vote by showing their ink stained fingers. Phosphorous ink is used in polling stations across the country to ensure that no one votes twice.

Throughout the past few weeks, the company encouraged its employees to attend events organized by the Sisi campaign. Members of staff were offered an out-of-office work assignment wage for two days if they attended the events, Salma said. However, employee attendance at the last conference held before voting began was obligatory, she added.

Meanwhile, Samy*, who works in the Zagazig Public Hospital, told Mada Masr that the local health directorate notified management at several public hospitals to divide doctors into two groups to go vote, with each group heading to the polls on either the first or second day of voting.

A representative from a local education directorate in Gharbiya was filmed threatening to cut teachers’ wages during the three-day election period if they could not prove that they voted, given that schools had assigned these days as paid leave.

In a video circulated on Facebook on Monday, the representative tells teachers that they must print the phosphorous ink from their fingertips directly onto cards distributed to them by the education directorate. These cards should then be sent to the directorate so authorities there can track the teachers who cast their votes.

The representative was also caught on tape saying that these procedures are per state instructions and reminded the teachers that participating in the election sends a message to the world that “Egypt has civilization, culture and total freedom.”

A copy of an alleged administrative order issued by Al-Azhar’s central administration office in Qalyubiya was also circulated on social media in the days before the election, which stated that all employees affiliated to the institution would also be divided into three groups, each casting their ballot on a separate day. Employees would also have to evidence their vote by showing their ink stained fingers, according to the order.

In contrast to these state institutions, it took some time for the National Election Authority (NEA) to parley in its own language of coercion. On Wednesday, the NEA announced that it would implement fines against eligible voters who refrained from participating in this year’s presidential election, referring to the presidential elections law (22/2014), which stipulates a maximum fine of LE500 for abstaining voters.

Bussed down to the polling stations

Several businessmen and companies took their efforts even further by providing buses covered with Sisi campaign banners to transport staff to polling stations.

“Your strength is in your participation. The Oriental Weavers companies support the candidacy and voting for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for a second term,” read the banner on one of the Oriental Weavers buses transporting workers.

An Oriental Weavers company bus - Courtesy: Mostafa Mohie - Photograph: مصطفى محيي

The company buses, owned by businessman Mohamed Farid Khamis, also roamed the streets of 10th of Ramadan City, where its factories are located, and offered to transport local residents to their polling stations.

“Egypt’s enemies inside and outside wish that the turnout rates will be low,” Khamis, who is also head of the Egyptian Union for Investors’ Associations, said in a statement released on Sunday. The businessman called on people to participate in the election, to prove them wrong.

Photograph: مصطفى محيي

While walking through an industrial area in 10th of Ramadan City, Mada Masr saw other buses with similar banners belonging to the Helal and Golden Star Group, which is owned by businessman Waleed Helal, as well as others belonging to the Swiss Garments Company, owned by businessman Alaa Arafa.

Closer to the capital, a video was taken in 6th of October City, near the industrial zone, where buses transported voters to polling stations. The buses carried banners for Sisi’s campaign, alongside commercial banners for Enjoy, a brand of juice produced by the Nile  Company for Food Industries, owned by businessman Kamal Haggag.

Discounts

Dream Park, an amusement park owned by businessman Ahmed Bahgat, offered discounts of up to 50 percent on tickets sold during election days with one condition: visitors must show their ink stained fingertips. The Russian Cultural Center also offered a 50 percent discount on its training courses on occasion of the Egyptian and Russian presidential elections, as well as an additional 15 percent discount for those who provide selfies of themselves voting.

In 15th of May City, a neighborhood southeast of central Cairo, voters were offered cooking oil, rice and sugar for free in exchange for their votes, the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper reported on its website on Monday in a piece that was later removed from their website on the same day.

A woman told a Shorouk reporter that she was given a piece of paper with the location of her polling station and her reference number in the electoral database by representatives of the Sisi campaign to facilitate her voting. After casting her vote, the campaigners stamped the paper, which she later used to claim cooking oil and sugar from her nearest grocery store. When the Shorouk reporter went with the woman to the grocery store, they found two young men who had a list of eligible voters in the area and told the reporter that businessman Eid Hammad was paying for the groceries.

The largest rewards in exchange for votes, however, were promises made to small towns that struggle to access functional infrastructure and utilities.

Hassan Rateb, head of the General Federation for Cooperatives, said that non-governmental organizations will allocate LE4 million from their donations to the village, town and city with the highest turnout nationwide. The money will be used to fund infrastructure projects that respond to the area’s needs.

Similarly, in the Delta city of Monufiya, Ayman Mokhtar, the goverorate’s general secretary, announced on Wednesday that a LE350,000 gift would be awarded to the town and city with the highest election participation rate in the area.

In his Sunday statement, Oriental Weavers owner Khamis also promised LE1 million in infrastructure projects to the two towns with the highest turnout rate in the Delta governorate of Sharqiya.

In Beheira, Governor Nadia Abdou announced before polling began that the local towns that achieve the highest voting numbers will have improvements to their water and sewage systems prioritized.

Religion is also being used as an incentive to get people out to vote, as has been the case in previous Egyptian elections. Mahmoud Ashmawy, governor of Qalyubiya announced that the delta governorate would grant sponsored pilgrimage trips to Mecca to two individuals, chosen through a public raffle, as long as they come from a city, town and neighborhood where voting participation exceeds 40 percent.

*Upon their request and for their safety, Mada Masr used pseudonyms for all interviewees that we spoke to.

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Mostafa Mohie