Under heat waves and dust storms What can voter turnout tell us about Sisi's re-election?

Plebiscite. Farce. Uncontested. All words used by some to describe Egypt’s 2018 presidential election, which took place between March 24-26. Yet, while this election was somewhat unique in its blatant lack of credibility, elections in Egypt have long been a contested affair, in terms of both legitimacy and integrity.

In the seven years since the January 25 revolution, Egyptians have been sent to the ballot box eight times, in three constitutional referendums, two parliamentary elections and three presidential elections. Each occasion has raised its own set of questions regarding the willingness of citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

In 2011, Egypt’s parliamentary election drew an average voter turnout of 54 percent overall, with a peak of 62 percent in the run-off, owing in large part to the fact that the governorates with the largest electoral bases participated in second round voting. One could argue that, for a population with a newly heightened sense of political awareness, and for an election that took place during an exciting revolutionary moment, turnout was surprisingly low. This is a misnomer, however. Consider, for example, the election turnout in Tunisia (52 percent) and Libya (62 percent) in 2011/2012, following the overthrow of each country’s respective leader. In the 2017 French presidential election, turnout hit an all-time low of less than 20 percent, despite the urgency felt in the contest between candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. The 2016 presidential election in the United States produced a turnout of 58 percent, which is consistent with their average historical turnout.  

One could argue that Egyptians do turn out when the vote is free and fair. Despite being faced with a laborious and extensive voting process in the 2011 parliamentary elections for both the lower and upper houses, citizens were tasked with voting on two separate ballots, for up to six candidates in large districts, a maximum of four times in the space of three months. It was unsurprising to find the voter turnout in scheduled run-offs considerably lower. Following 12 weeks of lower house elections, 2012 voting procedures for seats on the Shura Council — Egypt’s former upper house of Parliament that was dissolved in 2013 — barely drew double digit turnout rates in some regions.

Nevertheless, in the 18 months that followed the January 25 protests, which included a constitutional referendum, parliamentary and presidential elections; some areas, including Alexandria and rural parts of the Delta and Upper Egypt, saw a turnout rate of over 60 percent, signaling a historic moment for civil engagement and voter participation in Egypt. For those abroad during this period, turnout at Egypt’s embassies exceeded 70 percent.

However, Egypt’s elections in 2018 are a far cry from 2011, and interest in this year’s electoral process was considerably diminished. The massive clampdown on freedom of expression enacted by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime prevented any real contest, or even dissent of the incumbent, from taking place. A token candidate was chosen to challenge Sisi after an official visit to Cairo by United States Vice President Mike Pence, who implored the Egyptian president not to run uncontested.

So, what is the relevance of turnout in this election? The official figure announced by the National Elections Authority on Monday was 41 percent, not far off what an official told Mada Masr on condition of anonymity: “It will be between 45-50 percent, in the same range as 2014. Whatever actually happened doesn’t matter. I guarantee that will be the number.” 

State authorities reportedly withheld the national ID cards of thousands of civil servants across the country via the heads of government agencies, and they were returned to employees at polling stations after they had cast their votes. As the country was adorned with banners, minibuses paid for by the Sisi campaign sent groups of voters to the polls. Trucks filled with local Egyptian delicacies were placed outside popular street-side cafes for the three days, offering free food to those who had voted. Promises of infrastructure developments were made in rural governorates to cities and towns with the highest turnout. Governors also invited business leaders to commit pledges of support and financial aid to voters, while older citizens — notably women — were threatened with the denial of their pensions. Diplomats observing the elections also privately recorded incidents of vote buying.

While this only adds to the farcical landscape within which this election took place, it also reflects an important notion: to Sisi, at least, turnout matters.

In 2014, the final turnout was officially announced by the High Elections Commission (HEC) as 47.5 percent, although officials within the HEC privately confided in European observers at the time that the first day of voting saw a meager turnout rate of just six percent. The number eventually recorded could not have been achieved without a series of special measures being taken: the extension of voting procedures for an additional day, the designation of election days as official government holidays and the threat of a LE500 fine for those who abstained from participating — a threat that continues to resonate with citizens each time it is levied.

A similar pattern emerged in 2018, with many polling stations across the country recording voter turnout rates at between six to 20 percent over the first two days of voting, according to monitors from diplomatic delegations.

In 2014, a severe heat wave kept the streets empty, while this year an extraordinary sandstorm swept the nation. Arguably, with each attempt at forcing power consolidation, divine intervention has worked to prevent orchestrated legitimacy.

While it seems that turnout figures can give us no real indication of Sisi’s level of popular support, one thing has become clear from both the 2014 and 2018 electoral contests that brought him to power: when Egyptians feel that there is no real choice to be made, the majority will vacate their constitutional right to cast a ballot.

However, these elections have cast more long-term questions over the ruler’s relationship with citizens nationwide. Take Upper Egypt — where up to 60 percent of the voting electorate lives — as an example: This region has long held the deciding vote in elections and provided the Muslim Brotherhood with a decisive victory in 2011. Despite losing large urban centers like Cairo and Alexandria, Upper Egypt was also where Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi claimed victory in the 2012 presidential election.  

The relevance of this region lies in the old, but still fertile, links built in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, and this is where grassroots networks now direct their political and organizational prowess. While Sisi managed to easily recruit similar links in places like Cairo and the Nile Delta, Upper Egypt has not responded in the same way. Politics in the more familial and tribal parts of the country are often hyper-localized, and a million miles away from Cairo.

Political rallies in the 2012 presidential election, for example, centered around local issues like roads, infrastructure, sugar production, tribal conflicts and butane gas cylinder prices. Residents have long bemoaned Cairo-centric politics and the lack of attention that other governorates are given. “Saeedis,” as the people of Upper Egypt are colloquially referred to, commonly view police with caution, whereas disputes and local issues are resolved by large families and localized mediation. When, or if, Egypt regains the opportunity to restart its transitional roadmap, Upper Egypt will undoubtedly continue to play its role as the kingmaker in electoral processes.

Moving forward: If Sisi creates a political party that is reminiscent of the National Democratic Party in preparation for both the municipal elections and the 2020 parliamentary elections — as is widely anticipated, then Upper Egypt and its local politics will be integral to him succeeding. Support from Upper Egypt will be particularly pertinent if there is indeed a plan to mobilize voter turnout for a referendum on suggested constitutional amendments to end presidential term limits, as was already suggested shortly before the 2018 presidential election.

Lackluster support for Sisi’s re-election certainly does not bode well for attempts to consolidate power, particularly as the security apparatus acts as both instigator and caretaker of his political endeavors. Whether this will make the president think of elections in terms of actual voters, rather than abstract numbers, is unclear, especially given the ease with which the electoral system has been manipulated to deliver the desired results at any given time.

The staging of elections is not the sole requirement for a successful democratic transition — the Middle East region has proven this beyond a doubt over the past decade or so. However, there are fewer more pivotal public and constitutional events that provide a tangible representation of citizens’ views. Elections will therefore continue to be relevant, even in a country like Egypt, even under a regime like Sisi’s.


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