CAIRO (AP) — The government and media outlets in Egypt urged voters to the polls on Tuesday, the second and final day of the country’s presidential election, amid signs of a weaker-than-expected turnout in the balloting.
Election monitoring groups said the turnout on the first day of the vote was moderate and often thin or non-existent in towns and areas where Islamists dominate.
Whatever the turnout, former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who removed Egypt’s first freely elected president last year, is poised for an almost certain victory. His only rival in the race is left-wing politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third in the 2012 presidential vote but is not believed capable of taking more than a symbolic amount of votes from the retired field marshal.
However, the 59-year-old el-Sissi and his supporters have been counting on a large turnout to send a message to the West – as well as his opponents, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood group, which is boycotting the balloting – that his removal of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was not a coup but a popular revolution, similar to the 2011 uprising that ended autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s almost 30-year-long rule.
Egypt’s deep divisions were on full display Monday, the first day of voting. At some Cairo polling stations, lines of el-Sissi supporters waved Egyptian flags and wore clothes in the national red-white-and-black colors. Men and women, including ones wearing the conservative Muslim veil, danced to pro-military pop songs.
In strongholds of the Brotherhood – which has dominated all other elections since Mubarak’s ouster – the polls were virtually deserted, a fact likely to reduce the turnout from among the country’s nearly 54 million registered voters. Also, many of el-Sissi’s secular critics who supported Morsi’s removal but now fear the former army chief will enshrine a Mubarak-style autocracy, appeared to also have stayed away from the polls.
This apparently prompted the government to declare Tuesday a public holiday to allow millions of government employees – there are roughly 5.5 million government workers in this country of about 90 million people – time to go and cast ballots, and extended voting hours by one hour.
Banks and the stock market were also given the day off. Interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb appealed to the private sector to follow suit.
In a clear warning, election commission officials said they will implement a rarely applied article slapping fines on all able-bodied voters who do not cast their ballots. The fines, set at $72, are a hefty sum for most Egyptians.
There were no official figures for the turnout on the first day of voting but TV channels and officials went to great lengths to urge people to vote. Late night talk show hosts on private and state TV stations, which mostly support el-Sissi, vented their anger at those who stayed away from the polls.
Some blamed stepped-up security measures for the lackluster turnout, saying they intimidated voters.
“Don’t turn it into a horror movie,” said Ibrahim Eissa from the private ONTV.
Since ousting Morsi last July, el-Sissi has had the support from both state institutions and state-owned and private media as he rode a wave of nationalist fervor that expressed adulation for the military and cast him as the sole figure who can rescue the country.
On Tuesday, there was no rush to the polls, and many polling centers around the capital, Cairo, appeared deserted.
Standing with over a dozen other women outside a polling station in Cairo’s heavily populated district of Imbaba, Seham Sayed, 40, was adamant that her favorite is the best for her country.
“We want Egypt, and el-Sissi is Egypt, and then Egypt, and again Egypt,” she said.