CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian election authorities started counting ballots early Thursday morning hours after polls closed in a lackluster vote virtually guaranteed to hand President Abdel-Fattah Sissi a second four-year term. People were warned to vote or risk paying a fine, as authorities looked to boost turnout.
Sissi faced only a token opponent in the vote, which resembled referendums held by autocrats for decades before the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 briefly raised hopes of democratic change.
Serious challengers were forced out or arrested, including former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, who showed up late Tuesday at a polling center to cast his ballot. It was his first public appearance since he announced his intention to run in December from the United Arab Emirates, where he had gone after narrowly losing the 2012 election to the Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
The UAE deported Shafiq after the announcement, and he was met at the Cairo airport by unidentified security men who escorted him to a hotel on the city’s outskirts. He decided against running soon thereafter. On Tuesday, he told reporters that voting was a “national duty,” without elaborating.
The government is hoping for high turnout to lend the election legitimacy, and has staggered the voting over three days. Polls were initially to close Wednesday at 9 p.m. but voting was extended for an hour. Ballot counting started immediately after polls closed. Official results are expected Monday.
The National Election Authority said in a statement Wednesday it will enforce a law penalizing boycotters with a fine of around $30. Similar warnings have been issued in previous elections, with no real enforcement.
Nearly 60 million Egyptians are eligible to vote at some 13,700 polling centers. Sissi won 96.9 percent of the vote in 2014, with an official turnout of more than 47 percent. In the 2012 election, which saw heightened competition between Islamists and opponents, turnout reached 52 percent.
In the polling centers this year, turnout appeared low over the first two days of voting, then started to gain momentum by midday Wednesday, with short lines in front of some polling stations. Sissi’s only opponent is Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who supports the president and made no effort to campaign against him.
Mahmoud el-Sherif, the spokesman of the election commission, said Wednesday at a press conference that the highest turnout was in Cairo, the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, and in northern Sinai, the epicenter of an insurgency by Islamic militants.
In Cairo’s heavily populated, middle-class district of Shubra, a trickle of voters, mainly older women, could be seen outside two polling stations. Judges supervising the polling centers said that of 7,800 registered voters, some 3,000 cast ballots, or around 38 percent. In a nearby polling center, the turnout reached 34 percent, according to figures provided by judges there.
Saadia Ali, a housewife and mother of five, said she came because she hopes things will get better. “Just tell them that our houses are collapsing and on my street they are not doing anything to fix it,” she said.
Some Sissi supporters are suggesting that he should consider amending the constitution to remain president for life.
“I have only one wish and if it’s accomplished, I will be very happy,” said Ashraf Ahmed, a 50-year-old ceramic sculptor smoking a shisha in a cafe. “I wish that the next step is to change the constitution so he can run for a third, fourth, fifth (time) and forever.”
Sissi has said that he is not in favor of amending constitutional provisions barring the president from staying in office beyond two four-year-terms. Several pro-government lawmakers and media figures promoted the proposed amendments to allow Sissi to stay in office beyond eight years.
At Saleh Hamad school in Shubra, at least 3,500 of 12,000 eligible voters cast their votes by midday, or about 29 percent, polling judges there said. Christians, strong supporters of Sissi for challenging Islamists, make up a large portion of voters in the district. They constitute around 10 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population.
Father Marcus Ibrahim, a Coptic Christian priest who brought his son with him, said the church told worshippers to go and vote without supporting a certain candidate.
“This is the only way for change. It’s slow but it will happen as long as we keep participating. I brought my son and told him to sign the ballot and drop it in the box so he gets used to it.
Local media, which are dominated by pro-government commentators, have urged people to come out and vote, saying they have a national obligation to resist foreign plots aimed at sowing discord. Groups of loyalists can be seen clapping and dancing in front of some polling stations, as patriotic music plays from loudspeakers.
Outside a polling station in Cairo’s Manial neighborhood, about two dozen voters, mainly older people, lined up in front of the gates shortly before polls opened.
Sayada Fathi, a 62-year-old voter, said she wasn’t bothered by the lack of competition.
“Our beloved Sissi will win easily,” she said.