CAIRO, Egypt — Military helicopters circled above Cairo and soldiers guarded polling stations as supporters of Abdel Fattah el Sisi came out to vote for the general who would be president. But after the two official days of balloting—amid calls for boycotts and palpable apathy about an old-style sham election—turnout at the polls has been embarrassingly low. In fact, the legitimacy of the whole electoral show is hanging in the balance.
Voting was scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, which was declared a government holiday at the last minute to try to boost participation. When that didn’t work, the election was extended for a third day on Wednesday.
In the modest voter lines Sisi is the only candidate people are talking about and there is a strong sense of hostility towards anyone opposing the recently retired general.
“He will get rid of the terrorists and put the traitors and spies on trial,” says Mona Zakki, using common rhetoric to describe Islamists in Egypt’s polarized political landscape. The 42-year-old translator living in the upper class Zamalek neighborhood stands in line with other middle aged women who are an important constituency for the man who led the July 3 coup against elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammad Morsi.
The election is happening in the ninth month of a crackdown which has killed more than 1,400 people and jailed over 16,000, but for those participating it is seen as a referendum that validates military rule.
Suspicion of international media is high and Sisi partisans have targeted supporters of the only other candidate, leftist Hamdeem Sabhi, as well as those calling for boycotts. Washington Post correspondent Erin Cunningham and a Sabahi voter she was interviewing were attacked outside a polling station in Matareya on Monday. On Tuesday, in Cairo’s Nasser City, a BBC team interviewing the wife of a man killed during the army’s violent dispersal of pro Morsi protests in Rabba square last August suddenly found themselves trapped in a building surrounded by Sisi supporters. Police then briefly detained the journalists and the person they interviewed.
There is little tolerance for anyone openly critical of army rule in the ghettoized, working class neighborhood of Buleq Abu Lelia. Pro-Sisi residents in the cramped, narrow streets are welcoming as long as only their perspective is being heard. “Sisi is from the Egyptian army and the army is the best to form the government,” says 61 year old Said Shahada, who ekes out a living selling Pepsi products and is hoping for economic reforms that benefit the poor.
However, the atmosphere grows distinctly hostile when I cross the road to speak with 31-year-old construction worker, Farahat Tamer, who is boycotting the vote. Originally from Upper Egypt, he moved to the neighborhood for work six years ago and contends that few people from his home town will cast a ballot. “The regime of [ex- President Hosni] Mubarak has been taken out [but] my biggest fear is something worse is coming,” he says as Sisi supporters in the area become increasingly aggressive. “It’s difficult to give the opposite opinion,” says Tamer. “Only those who have an interest will vote.”
Sabahi hoped to inspire young voters, but they are conspicuously absent at the polls. Instead, many have joined sporadic anti-coup protests lead by young people refusing to vote in Cairo and Alexandria. Sabahi’s campaign sent out a statement estimating voter turnout for the election at 10-15, percent but decried the extra day of voting. The campaign also has said that four members of its team have been arrested at polling stations.
Morsi previously won the middle-class Abdeen neighborhood, but now many voters claim to be enthusiastic supporters of Sisi. “He is not just words, he takes action,” says Eman Awad as people gather around her, cheering. A 50-year-old employe of the Defense Ministry chimes in, “He’s a man who understands the people.”
Yet, still, at a nearby polling station, a scared Morsi supporter is determined to explain why he sees no legitimacy in this vote: “A president was elected and the defense minister kicked him out and put himself in,” says 55-year-old chemical engineer Nasser Hussain Ali. While a trickle of people make their way past him to vote, they jeer at him, shouting “Brotherhood” at the top of their lungs and trying to rally people as if confronting a pickpocket. Clearly feeling isolated, Ali explains that only renewed street protests can prevent continued army rule and that voting only gives legitimacy to the repression. “This election is an act,” he says before making a quick exit.