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Dismal turnout for Egypt presidential vote

A soldier helps a woman after voting during the presidential election in Talya, 40 km northwest of Cairo, May 27, 2014.


Less than a year after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand the ouster of the country's first democratically elected president, the most populous nation in the Arab world is facing a crisis of apathy.

Egypt's pivotal presidential election, expected to result in the installation of former military head Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as the country's second president in as many years, has been extended for a third day in an effort to combat anemic voter turnout. As the nation struggles to put an end to some of the worst political instability and mass violence in its modern history, the first days of voting have been so far defined by countless images of near-deserted polling stations.

"For the second straight day, lines at polling stations were a rare sight amid sustained heightened security," noted Basil El-Dabh, a Cairo-based reporter covering the elections for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

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Mr. El-Dabh said the apathy among voters cannot be attributed entirely to a boycott by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He added that the phenomenon is unlikely to be solely the result of the Brotherhood's absence from the political process, given that even jurisdictions such as Cairo, where Islamist influence is traditionally weak, saw seemingly low turnout.

Much of the discussion surrounding the elections in Egypt has centred on the number of people – particularly younger voters – who simply didn't bother taking part. By the end of the first day of voting, various local bloggers had begun sharing images online of spoiled and sarcastically filled ballots – including some by voters who'd chosen to voice their support for such as write-in candidates as soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and actress Emma Stone.

For months, the election has been viewed by many as a partial coronation of Mr. el-Sissi, the former leader of the Egyptian military who provided the force behind a popularly supported overthrow of Mohammed Morsi – the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated leader who became Egypt's first democratically elected president in June, 2012, and was ousted a year later.

But it appears that, should Mr. el-Sissi win, even in an expected landslide, his victory will have been facilitated by a relatively tiny portion of the electorate.

Whereas the 2012 presidential elections featured a turnout of more than 50 per cent, observers this week put the current turnout at closer to 20 per cent – and perhaps half that number in some of the restive rural parts of the country, where Brotherhood support still runs high.

The potential causes of Egyptians' growing alienation from the democratic process are widespread. Some see the result as predetermined. Many of the young activists who sparked the first Arab Spring revolution and the subsequent push to remove Mr. Morsi have themselves been undermined or imprisoned by the interim government.

But perhaps the most important reason many Egyptians haven't bothered voting may be a sense of economic futility – despite hefty loans from several Gulf countries, Egypt's economy has shown almost no signs of life. Even Mr. el-Sissi has admitted there are no prospects for a turnaround in the near future.

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"The Egyptian economy is pretty much unfixable," said James Gelvin, a professor and Middle East expert at UCLA. "Sissi has said as much … he's asked people to bite the bullet, but I don't think, when you're living on $2 a day, that there's much leeway to bite the bullet."

On Monday night, Egypt's interim government took the unusual step of proclaiming Tuesday a national holiday, in an effort to get more people to the polls. On Tuesday, it extended voting for a third day.

The seemingly dismal voter turnout also prompted panic among several high-profile anchors and commentators on Egypt's state-run and private TV stations – many of which have cheered on Mr. el-Sissi's campaign.

"I'm willing to slit my wrists for my country on air right now, so that the people will come down [and vote]," popular Egyptian TV personality Amr Adib said on air after the first day of voting on Monday. Another TV analyst suggested that the country's electricity supply should be temporarily cut, shutting down air conditioners during the country's ongoing heatwave and forcing people to leave their homes.

In practical terms, the concern over Egypt's voter turnout rate appears to be purely one of perception, rather than outcome. Well before voting began, many local businessmen began hoisting massive banners in many parts of Cairo, publicly proclaiming their support of Mr. el-Sissi as president – a throwback to the days of ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, whose visage could be readily seen on similar congratulatory posters weeks before election campaigns took place.

Indeed, myriad images from some of Egypt's 352 main polling stations indicate that those who did show up to vote were overwhelmingly supportive of the country's former military head. In countless images posted online, voters showed their ink-stained fingers and their hands curled into the shape of a C – a sign of support for Mr. el-Sissi.

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Regardless of the turnout, Mr. el-Sisi is widely expected to dominate the final tally. He faces only one rival candidate – a long-time left-leaning opposition figure named Hamdeen Sabahi. Not only did Mr. Sabahi trail badly in the polls leading up to the election, his most likely base of support – young people and disillusioned revolutionaries – appears to have opted to boycott the election process entirely.

Meanwhile, Mr. el-Sissi's strongest and most organized opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, is in shambles after being declared illegal and having many of its most senior leaders jailed. Contacted by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday to see whether he had voted in or boycotted the election, one Brotherhood member said he had fled Egypt entirely and relocated to Qatar, for fear of imprisonment.

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