CAIRO (AP) — With nearly all votes counted, Egypt’s former military chief has won a crushing victory over his sole opponent in the country’s presidential election with more than 92 percent of the votes, according to results announced by his campaign Thursday. The interim president said turnout reached 46 percent.
But the turnout figure raised questions of the vote’s integrity after the state – following widespread reports of empty polling stations during the scheduled two days of voting – abruptly added a third day to beef up the numbers.
The victory by retired field marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was never in doubt, but the career infantry officer had pushed for a strong turnout to bestow legitimacy on his ouster last July of Egypt’s first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
In a statement Thursday, Interim President Adly Mansour declared that legitimacy had been achieved. He put turnout at 46 percent and said it showed “a broad consensus” for the political roadmap transition set by the military after Morsi’s ouster. He said the voting was free of any “serious misconduct.”
That rate is lower than the 52 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential election that Morsi won – and lower than the bar el-Sissi himself set in his last campaign interview, when he said he wanted more than 40 million of the country’s 54 million registered voters to cast ballots so he can “show the world” his support.
Islamists, once the country’s most powerful political machine, had called a boycott of the vote, as had some more secular “revolutionary” youth groups.
Still, el-Sissi can genuinely claim he comes into office with an impressive vote tally – his campaign said he won 23.38 million votes. That’s significantly more than the 13 million that Morsi won two years ago. His sole opponent, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, received 736,000 votes, less than the 1.03 million invalid ballots cast, according to the figures.
After polls closed, several thousand el-Sissi supporters celebrated in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. They waved Egyptian flags, el-Sissi posters and danced. There were similar celebrations in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and a string of other cities north of the capital and in the oasis province of Fayoum southwest of Cairo.
But the unusual measures taken by the government to drum out voters raised skepticism over the extent of support.
The first day of voting saw reports of a meager 15 percent turnout, prompting officials to declare the next day a public holiday to get people to the polls, while threatening fines on those who didn’t vote. On the extra, third day, bus and trains were free to allow people to return to home districts and cast ballots.
Sabahi protested the extension, saying it aimed to “distort” the will of the people. His campaign pulled its representatives from polling stations Wednesday in protest against what it called a campaign of intimidation and arrests of its campaign workers.
Sabahi’s spokesman, Hossam Moenis, told ONTV network that a member of the campaign has been referred to a military tribunal.
“We are digging a channel for democracy … in the face of an undemocratic project,” he said. “The same mentality that we thought we managed to topple on Jan. 25, is back and ruling,” – a reference to the start of the 18-day, anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011.
Critics said the lack of enthusiasm at the polls was in part due to apathy among even el-Sissi supporters, knowing that his victory was a foregone conclusion. Others said it showed discontent with el-Sissi, not just among his Islamist foes but also among a broader section of the public that believes he has no concrete plans for Egypt’s woes and fears he will return Egypt to the autocratic ways of Mubarak.
The measures to increase voter numbers were also startling because el-Sissi was not expected to need any help. The government and media had been whipping up adulation for el-Sissi over the past 10 months, depicting him as a warrior against terrorism and the only person able to tackle Egypt’s economic problems, high unemployment, inflation and instability.
El-Sissi’s supporters in the Egyptian media have been in a panic the past two days. Political talk show hosts and newscasters urged people to vote, warning that otherwise the Brotherhood will be encouraged to step up its challenge to the new government.
Prominent TV talk show host Amr Adeeb angrily said that by not voting, Egyptians might as well “go directly to the prison and return Mohammed Morsi to power.”
U.S.-based Democracy International, which had been observing the vote, said the extension “raises more questions about the independence of the election commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt’s electoral process.” It largely ended its observer mission as scheduled after two days, though European Union monitors stayed on.
Only a handful of voters, or none at all, were at polling centers in multiple districts toured by Associated Press reporters Wednesday. At some, music played and kids painted Egyptian flags or el-Sissi’s name on their faces but only the occasional voter drifted in. TV images beamed from more than a dozen locations across Egypt showed similar scenes.
“People are lazy, depressed or frustrated. They knew what the result will be even before the vote,” said Amani Fikry, a manager in a privately-owned company. “They are exhausted from three years of constant troubles.”