CAIRO — In Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians once rallied for democracy, a giant television screen played videos of tanks, Egyptian soldiers and speeches by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Election billboards of Sissi blanketed the area as his supporters waved national flags and danced to patriotic music blaring from loudspeakers mounted on trucks.
To anyone watching the scene, the symbolism was clear: The revolution was dead, and authoritarianism was in control.
As polls closed on Wednesday, ending Egypt’s farcical three-day-long elections, no one in the Arab world’s most populous country had any doubts about who would win. All credible challengers had been arrested, intimidated or pressured to withdraw.
Even with no real competition, Sissi’s loyalists and local authorities delivered food, cash and promises of municipal services to voters in an effort to engineer a high voter turnout, according to Egyptian voters, local journalists and some foreign election observers. The aim was to lend legitimacy to Sissi’s victory
The election underscored the fissures in Egyptian society. Many people in their twenties and thirties said in interviews that they did not intend to vote, citing their displeasure over economic austerity measures, lack of jobs and repression.
“I thought I would be excited for these elections, seven years after the January revolution, but I am surely not,” said Shams El Dine, 28, an engineer. “Why would I vote in an election where two candidates were jailed, another two were intimidated and while thousands of opponents are jailed?”
Many middle-aged and elderly Egyptians said they voted for Sissi and cited his efforts to combat terrorism, bolster the economy and bring stability and security to the country.
Mohamed Shaban, 44, said he voted for Sissi because he didn’t want the country to return to the political and economic turmoil that emerged after the 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. In 2013, Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist who had been elected president, was ousted in a military coup led by Sissi, triggering violence and chaos. Since his election in 2014, Sissi has jailed thousands of Islamists and others considered foes of the regime.
“It’s more secure than before,” said Shaban, a petroleum engineer who lives in Cairo’s affluent Maadi enclave. “I have seen what happened in 2011, during the revolution. We were in the streets defending our buildings and families. I don’t believe our country in this time needs another revolution.”
Analysts say Sissi is eliminating threats to his rule, in large part because Egypt’s powerful military regrets that Mubarak gave an opening to Islamists and other opponents by acceding to Western pressure to hold elections in 2005.
Over the past year, the government has blocked hundreds of websites, including those of most independent media. Numerous opponents have been arrested, or “forcibly disappeared,” in Egypt’s state security system.
On the last possible day to run, Sissi’s lone challenger, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, announced his candidacy. Moussa’s entry was widely seen as an effort by the government to bring a veneer of democracy to the vote. Campaign billboards of Moussa were hard to find, and he declined to even consider debating Sissi over issues, saying he had no intention of challenging him.
Sissi loyalists spent the past three days largely focused on trying to bolster voter turnout. Analysts say a turnout of at least 45 percent — close to that of the 2014 election — is needed for the vote to have credibility.
Election results are expected Monday, if not earlier.
In some cases, the efforts to boost the vote were public. In the governorate of Qalyoubeya, Muslim citizens were told they would be eligible for religious trips to Saudi Arabia if the turnout exceeded 40 percent in their areas. Each church diocese would also be given $5,700 if the governorate as a whole exceeded the 40 percent turnout rate.
At some polling stations, Sissi campaign workers were asked by voters to stamp cards entitling them to food packages in exchange for voting, said Hassan Hussien, a local journalist who said he witnessed such incidents. One well-known businessman, he added, distributed two chickens to every person who voted.
In other cases, the push was more clandestine. An election observer from a foreign embassy said he witnessed two instances of cash changing hands at polls in central Cairo. “We saw people being passed cash,” said the observer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
A spokesman for Egypt’s electoral commission did not respond to requests for comment.
On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a photo of charge d’affaires Thomas Goldberger with the message: “As Americans we are very impressed by the enthusiasm and patriotism of Egyptian voters.”
That triggered widespread condemnation on social media. “Saying this with no context for the widespread repression that has totally discredited this vote is shameful,” wrote Timothy Kaldas, a political analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
For Wael Eskandar, an activist and blogger, and many other young Egyptians, Western governments are to blame for the sham election because they remained silent about the repression of democracy. Eskandar said those governments have emboldened Sissi, pointing to the continuing sales of arms and surveillance equipment to Egypt.
The Sissi election billboards across the capital, he said, “are a symbol of oppression,” but he’s neither angry at Sissi nor at Egyptians who support Sissi. “I see the faces of Western leaders when I see Sissi’s face all over Tahrir,” Eskandar said.