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Egyptian Regime Scrambles to Boost Low Turnout in Election Sealing General Sisi’s Grip on Power

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Egypt’s presidential election has been extended for a third day in an apparent bid to boost voter turnout. The outcome is believed to be a foregone conclusion with former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi widely expected to win. But the conspicuously low voter turnout threatens to undermine the credibility of the election and has led the military-backed government to take desperate measures. On Tuesday, the government declared a public holiday to encourage voter participation. It also waived public transportation fares, encouraged shopping malls to close early, and threatened to fine Egyptians who did not vote. Local politicians took to the airwaves to repeat messages from Muslim and Christian leaders about a “religious duty” to vote. If Sisi wins the election as predicted, he will become the sixth military man to run Egypt since the army overthrew the monarchy in 1952. He led the ouster of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi last year. Some Islamic and liberal political groups have urged Egyptians to boycott the election, arguing that the vote is unfair and illegitimate. We go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Egypt’s presidential election, which has been extended for a third day in an apparent bid to boost voter turnout. The result of the election is believed to be a foregone conclusion, with former Army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi widely expected to win. But the low voter turnout threatens to undermine the credibility of the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go right to Egypt, where we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo, joining us from a polling place. Can you describe where you are, Sharif, and the significance of the extension of the election and making yesterday a national holiday so people would turn out?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, that’s right, Amy. I’m speaking to you in front of a poll station in Dokki, a district in Cairo. As you can see behind me, there’s very few people lined up. In fact, there’s no line outside the polling station. And this has been the case for the past two days. There was a much lower-than-expected turnout for this election, which had the authorities desperate to boost people coming to the polls. So, initially, they extended voting hours on Monday by an hour. Then they declared Tuesday a holiday for both state and private employees. They closed the stock market. They suspended fares for the train and the metro to facilitate people getting to the polls. And they even had the Justice Ministry saying that people were going to get fined if they didn’t go to vote. It also spurred many of the hosts on—pro-military hosts on television, that dominate the airwaves, were in hysterics last night, criticizing people for not turning out, having a lot of elite disdain for the Egyptian people, one host calling people traitors for not voting, another telling business owners to check their employees’ hands to see if there was ink proving that they voted. So, there was really, I think, a lot of shock by the authorities at the level of turnout.

Now, some of the reasons for this lower-than-expected enthusiasm for this poll, there’s many, but one may be voter apathy. I mean, we have seen three—seven elections. This is the seventh poll in Egypt since the ouster of Mubarak just over three years ago. None of the people in office right now have been elected by any of those polls. And when those—when we did have elected officials, much of the political elites spent their time discussing issues over identity rather than issues, the deep—discussing the deep social and economic problems that plague Egypt. So, the electoral process has been increasingly dissatisfying and alienating for many Egyptian voters.

Another reason is, of course, the certainty of the outcome of this election. Unlike the 2012 poll, which had candidates from across the political spectrum, this election just has two candidates, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahi, both of which espouse different brands of the same ideology, Nasserism. And Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a candidate that’s backed by the state, he’s backed by the business elite, and is widely expected to win. And so the certainty of the results may have played into people not bothering to come.

And certainly, there is an active boycott. We have to remember that the largest political group in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not taking part in this election. They’ve been the subject of an incredibly harsh crackdown. Many of their rank and file have been killed. Their leaders are jailed. And so they have refused to take part, as have groups like the April 6 Youth Movement. So, again, officials are saying the turnout is somewhere between—in the mid-thirties, but that is a much lower turnout than we saw in the runoff that elected Mohamed Morsi in 2012, which had 52 percent.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sharif, el-Sisi is so guaranteed to win that he hasn’t even made one public appearance during his campaign?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That Sisi has not appeared publicly once himself during this campaign, even though his images are ubiquitous throughout the country?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Sorry, Nermeen, it’s cutting a bit, but I—from what I understand from your—what your question is, about Sisi’s campaign. He has run a very, very controlled campaign. He has not had any public appearances, preferring instead to meet people and officials at his campaign headquarters, or do events by video link to other parts of the country. He’s done very few media appearances, and those have been very managed, with very easy questions. And he’s made very clear that he’ll have no civilian oversight of the military; when he was asked bluntly this question, he refused to answer. And his electoral program is shrouded in mystery. He has said that the crisis, or what they call the war on terrorism, is his program.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we’re going to have to leave it there. That does it for the show. Sharif Abdel Kouddous reporting from Cairo.

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