Egypt’s Presidential Election Ends Amid Signs of Low Turnout

Egyptian authorities began counting ballots in the presidential race after extending the vote for a third day as signs of a low turnout threatened to undercut the mandate sought by the former army chief who’s expected to win.

State television showed officials unsealing and emptying ballot boxes. Earlier television images nationwide showed only a trickle of voters lining up to cast ballots in the race between retired Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and former lawmaker Hamdeen Sabahi. Authorities and religious leaders had appealed for a high turnout.

The last-minute efforts to get out the vote suggested that the adulation heaped on El-Sisi after he ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July could be slipping amid pervasive polarization in the nation. It also raised questions over the election’s impartiality, with U.S.-based Democracy International describing it as “just the latest in a series of unusual steps that have seriously harmed the credibility of the process.”

“They keep thinking of ways to make a mockery of us before the world,” said Hossam Samir, a 27-year-old unemployed university graduate who is refusing to vote, referring to the decision to extend the ballot. “They’re trying to force me to voice the opinion they want to hear when my opinion is that I don’t like either candidate.”

Stocks Drop

The benchmark EGX 30 Index for stocks dropped 2.3 percent, the most since April 6, in part due the low turnout, according to Wafik Dawood, director of institutional sales at Cairo-based Mega Investments Securities. The drop trimmed the rally since July to 72 percent.

Low turnout could cement arguments that Mursi’s ouster amounted to a coup and set back the democratic gains from the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood that fielded Mursi for office is boycotting the election, and described the low turnout as a “popular punishment for the military coup.”

A Pew Research poll published this month found that Egyptian faith in democracy is waning, with 59 percent saying it’s their preferred system, down from 66 percent a year earlier.

“Is this the democracy they’re talking about setting up here?” Samir said, speaking in the Cairo district of Nasr City, where security forces last year violently broke up a weeks-long encampment by Mursi backers, killing hundreds.

‘Amateurish Fashion’

Tarek Shebl, a member of the election commission, said initial figures show turnout may have exceeded 40 percent, state-run Ahram Gate website reported hours before the polls closed. That compares with more than 50 percent in the 2012 election Mursi won. About 53 million Egyptians are eligible to vote.

“The authorities are acting in a panicked and amateurish fashion in response to projected low voter turnout,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

Aside from the boycott by Mursi supporters, other reasons include “voter fatigue, disillusionment with politics in general, and the fact that there is no real competition,” he said. The military-backed interim government has said that it takes no sides in the race.

Whoever wins will take the helm of a nation that has struggled to recover from the political turmoil that has deterred tourism and investment.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait pledged about $15 billion in aid. The largess has replenished foreign reserves and allowed the central bank to cut interest rates, yet it hasn’t been enough to jolt the economy out of its worst slowdown for two decades.

El-Sisi’s supporters say he’s the only man who can accomplish that and restore stability.

“Security and stability must come before all else,” said 48-year-old Azza Lotfy. “This is more important than freedom. It is security that will bring about freedoms.”

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