Egypt urges voters to cast ballots as Sisi nears presidency

By Maggie Fick and Stephen Kalin
Reuters
Presidential candidate Sisi arrives with his bodyguards at a polling station to cast his vote during the presidential election in Cairo
Presidential candidate and former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) arrives with his bodyguards at a polling station to cast his vote during the presidential election in Cairo May 26, 2014. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Maggie Fick and Stephen Kalin

CAIRO (Reuters) - Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to emerge from a second and final day of voting on Tuesday as Egypt's next president, with the military-backed government seeking to boost turnout by declaring a holiday and extending voting hours.

With victory for Sisi a foregone conclusion, turnout will be seen at home and abroad as an important measure of the level of popular support for the field marshal who toppled Egypt's first freely elected leader, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi.

Local media loyal to the government chided voters for not turning out in large enough numbers, and Egyptians received text messages reminding them that not voting was an offence punishable by a fine. A prominent TV commentator said people who did not vote were "traitors, traitors, traitors".

After polls opened at 9.00 a.m. (0600 GMT), lines outside polling stations in various parts of Cairo were short, and in some cases no voters could be seen. The polls close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT), an hour later than planned.

There is only one other candidate: the leftist politician candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, whose campaign described turnout on day one as "moderate, and below moderate in some cases".

Though Sisi enjoys wide support among Egyptians who see him as a strong leader able to end three years of turmoil, some said they had stayed away because neither candidate met aspirations that had been awakened by the 2011 Arab Spring revolt against decades of autocracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, who view Sisi as the mastermind of a coup against Mursi, boycotted an election that is set to reinstate a military man in the presidency of a country dominated by the army since 1952.

Backed by the all-powerful state, Sisi is winning the votes of Egyptians seeking stability and who were glad to see the end of Mursi's divisive year in office, terminated by the army after mass protests against his rule.

Sisi has been lionized by state and privately owned media, which have helped build a personality cult around the former intelligence chief about whom little was known until last year: his face now appears on chocolates, posters and key-rings.

On Sisi's Facebook page, admirers posted hundreds of pictures of themselves wearing Egyptian flags or patriotic T-shirts, with ink on their fingers showing they had voted for him. Others had banners saying "long live Egypt", Sisi's slogan.

SECURITY AND THE ECONOMY

At some polling stations, Sisi supporters sang and danced to a patriotic song composed for the election. But young Egyptians - the generation that drove the 2011 uprising - were sometimes hard to find in the voting lines.

Sisi, 59, enjoys the backing of many Egyptian Muslims attracted by his pious demeanour - he has presented himself as a defender of Islam - and Coptic Christians whose churches were attacked after Mursi's downfall and who see him as a protector.

"I am voting for Sisi because we need to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. He stood behind the people to overthrow this garbage (the Brothers). He will improve security and the economy," said Adnan al-Gindi, a 54-year old dentist, as he waited to vote for Sisi in the affluent Cairo area of Zamalek.

The Brotherhood, which came first in both parliamentary and presidential polls held after Mubarak's downfall, has been driven underground in a campaign of repression that has killed hundreds of its followers and landed thousands more in prison.

In a move that has alienated some liberal Egyptians who backed Mursi's overthrow, secular dissidents have also been jailed, often for breaking a new protest law criticised as a threat to free assembly.

Sabahi came third in the 2012 election won by Mursi. Other candidates who contested the election won by Mursi did not run, saying the climate was not conducive to democracy following a crackdown on Islamist and other opposition groups. Sabahi's campaign complained of many violations, including physical assaults on Sabahi representatives, and "intervention by police and army", on the first day of voting.

Polling stations were guarded by soldiers, some in black face masks, with plain clothes police also in evidence. The majority of those waiting to vote in Zamalek said they would vote Sisi, except for one. "It is not right to have a military man as president after the revolution," said Mohammed Khodr, 34, a film-maker.

The limited showing contrasted with parliamentary and presidential elections held after Mubarak's overthrow, when voter lines were measured in the hundreds and stretched far into the streets leading to the polling stations.

Local media presented the election as a success.

"Egyptians make history," declared Al-Ahram, the state's flagship newspaper, showing a snaking line of men waiting to vote. Sisi himself had called for a record turnout. "Egyptians choose the president and declare the end of the Brotherhood," announced Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent newspaper hostile to the Islamist movement that was toppled after mass protests against Mursi's rule last year.

VOTING FOR NEITHER CANDIDATE

Some described voting as a waste of time.

"The two candidates are imposed upon us. I don't want either," said 24-year old Wael Shawky, as he pulled loaves of state-subsidised bread out of the oven of the bakery where he works in the working class district of Imbaba.

Others said Egypt needed a military man.

In Imbaba, an Islamist stronghold, a line of young women waited in the heat to cast their votes for Sisi.

"He is the head of the army, he is respected, he is not corrupt or a thief so am voting for Sisi," said Douaa Mohammad 34, mother of two.

Sisi, 59, faces serious challenges including an economy in crisis and a campaign of Islamist violence that has spiralled since he overthrew Mursi.

Several hundred members of the security forces have been killed in a campaign of violence by radical Islamists since last July. The last year has been the bloodiest period of internal strife in Egypt's modern history.

Human Rights Watch estimates the number of political dissidents and Islamists in detention at more than 20,000.

Western governments have raised concern about respect for freedoms.

The Brotherhood and its allies, which had declared it "the election of the presidency of blood", issued a statement saying their call for a boycott had been widely observed. The group has been declared a terrorist organisation by the state, which accuses it of turning to violence - a charge it denies.

It is the second time Egyptians are electing a president in two years. And it is the seventh vote or referendum since 2011.

As president, Sisi will have to meet the expectations of those who have backed him in the hope that he can tackle poverty, unemployment and other social problems. He will also be expected to address the corruption, cronyism and inequality between rich and poor that caused the 2011 revolution.