How Egypt’s election turned to farce


A Sissi supporter holds an Egyptian flag while celebrating at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Wednesday. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

The result of Egypt's presidential election was never in doubt, but the bungling of state authorities brought a fitting, farcical gloss to proceedings.

Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the longtime front-runner, won the election handily, getting some 93 percent of the vote. But his victory was dampened by a low turnout, made all the more conspicuous after officials decided to extend the vote by an extra day so more Egyptians could go to the polls.

Meanwhile, a host of state TV presenters lambasted the public for not fulfilling their national duty. One even declared that he would "cut his veins open" on air just so Egyptians would go down and vote. Others complained that Egyptians were being lazy and skulking behind their air-conditioning. You can watch a terrific mash-up of these desperate pronouncements below:

According to figures released on Thursday, only 46 percent of eligible voters went to the ballot box. That's a smaller figure than the numbers who voted in Egypt's 2012 presidential elections -- considered to be the country's only real democratic leadership vote -- which saw the eventual victory of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi. Sissi had hoped some 40 million of the 54 million registered voters in Egypt would turn out, but the actual number ended up being around 25 million.

Sissi's only official challenger, the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, racked up a miserable 4 percent of the vote. There was a point during the vote count when election officials had counted more "voided ballots" -- ones that voters deliberately ruined with joke write-in candidates -- than ballots cast for Sabahi.

Sissi was Morsi's defense minister before Sissi authorized a coup last July that toppled the Islamist politician and led to the deaths of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the arrests of thousands more. Sissi has since ridden a wave of anti-Islamist feeling and popular support for a strongman to calm Egypt's turbulent politics. He has been helped by the state media, which cheered Morsi's ouster and, according to the Wall Street Journal, downplayed the violent crackdown on Morsi's supporters during weeks of bloodshed last August:

These were deaths the Egyptian news channels, by and large, didn't report. What the channels did often show was slow-motion video of pro-Morsi protesters carrying small weapons, with the TV outlets sometimes helpfully circling protesters' handguns or clubs in red.

Last August, in airing footage of police dispersing a pro-Morsi encampment, [one TV station] set the action to the theme music from the "Rocky" movies.

But this week's on-air scolding of the public could not gloss over the weakness of Sissi's political machine, which has rumbled along largely on the fumes of public goodwill. It puts into question his ability to translate his popularity into sound governance, as my colleague Erin Cunningham, reporting from Cairo, writes:

Because Sissi's campaign relied largely on his personal popularity and a disparate group of supporters to mobilize voters, there was no unified electoral machine to grant the former army chief the ballots he needed to claim sweeping success. Sissi refused to even release a formal political platform ahead of the vote.

"What we’re seeing is the manifestations of there not being organized civilian politics in the country," said Josh Stacher, a professor of Middle East politics at Kent State University.

Sissi's ability (and willingness) to actively cultivate that sort of civilian politics will be put to the test. Steven A. Cook, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests the signs do not augur well:

Sisi will likely apply force and coercion in an attempt to gain political control, but this may not work, leading to more uncertainty and instability. If it does work, Egypt's authoritarian path will be clear. Needless to say, neither outcome is good for Egyptian society.

As the low turnout makes clear, the cynicism surrounding a Sissi presidency is already bubbling to the surface.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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Ishaan Tharoor · May 29