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Low voter turnout undercuts presidency in Egypt election

Workers count ballots at a polling station in Cairo on Wednesday during the third day of voting in Egypt’s presidential election.


Egyptians, or a relatively small fraction of them, elected former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as their new president this week in an underwhelming display of support that threatens to undercut the influence of the winner before his term even begins.

Voting is compulsory in Egypt but even that couldn't overcome Egyptians' apathy about this election. Officials, desperate to get a respectable number of people out to vote, resorted to every trick in the book: They declared Tuesday a national holiday; they extended daily voting hours and lengthened the election to a third day; they branded non-voters as "traitors" and said they would fine them the equivalent of about $70. But after three marathon days of voting, they still appear to have wrung out only about 30 per cent of the country's 54 million eligible votes.

Official figures will be made public on June 5, but unofficial counts Wednesday night indicated Mr. el-Sissi was garnering more than 90 per cent of the vote in a race with only one other candidate. It will probably be enough to give him more than the 13.2 million votes his predecessor, Mohamed el-Morsi, received in the tight two-candidate runoff vote for president in 2012.

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The results are a setback to the former army chief who said he expected 40 million people to vote, or about 75 per cent of the electorate, to vindicate last July's military ouster of Mr. Morsi, a leader of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The low turnout "really was to be expected," said Michelle Dunne, senior associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Never mind that the Muslim Brotherhood and some other parties had told their followers to boycott the vote, she said, there was "little motivation" for anyone to vote. The people "knew in advance who would win" and Mr. el-Sissi's once sky-high popularity had waned considerably.

"It's a return to the kind of elections Egypt had in the past," said Nathan Brown, professor of international affairs at George Washington University. In the 2005 election, for example, just 22.9 per cent of voters turned out to give then-president Hosni Mubarak 89 per cent of the vote in what was a relatively free election for those times.

The Muslim Brotherhood already is crowing on Twitter about the victory of its boycott. "They will see Sissi as vulnerable," said Ms. Dunne, who expects the Brothers to "redouble their efforts" to increase international pressure against the regime for its human-rights abuses.

However, it would be "a stretch" to imagine the Brotherhood or any opposition movement taking to the streets in large scale 2011-style protests any time soon.

"People will give Sissi a chance [to rule] if only because of their fatigue," Ms. Dunne concluded.

In the absence of a parliament, expected to be elected this fall, the new president will rule by decree, Prof. Brown noted. "Will he try to use that to launch policy initiatives?" he asked. It's not at all certain.

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The first few months will be precarious, said a prominent Cairo business consultant who spoke anonymously to protect his business interests.

As a candidate, Mr. el-Sissi vowed to reform the country's massive subsidization program that benefits the rich as much as the poor, but "there is no way Sissi will touch subsidies heading into Ramadan [the holy month starting in July] and the high-inflation back-to-school period," said the consultant. "This means we're not looking at rationalization of subsidies until fall at the earliest."

"Meanwhile," he noted, "the balance of payments is increasingly stretched, rolling blackouts are back with a vengeance, the Egyptian pound is weakening on the official market. It's not going to be easy."

Mr. el-Sissi will get a brief honeymoon, Ms. Dunne said. "But in six to 12 months, Egyptians will need to see some improvements."

For now, the country is counting largely on financial aid coming from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, "but that can't continue forever," said Prof. Brown.

Others are disappointed as well by the poor turnout. The Salafist Nour party had backed Mr. el-Sissi and urged its followers to vote. The party's failure to deliver casts some doubt on the Salafists' aspirations to do well in this fall's parliamentary election.

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And in Jerusalem, Israeli political and military leaders would have liked to see Mr. el-Sissi with a more resounding victory, leaving him less vulnerable to political pressures that might affect Egypt's relatively friendly relations with Israel.

"Israel's main concerns at the moment are over the Sinai and Gaza," said Ms. Dunne, where both countries want an end to the outlaw groups known to smuggle people and weapons and harbour militants. "I believe, for now at least, that [co-operation and security actions] will continue as they are," she said.

"But," she added, "we all need to look at Egypt as a country with a lot more turmoil in its future."

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