A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Egypt's Election Mess: Which is More Damaging, the Low Turnout or the Desperate, Panicked Response?

A polling place

The decision to extend voting another day in order to increase turnout in Egypt, fearing that low turnout will undercut the credibility of Field Marshal al-Sisi's election, has been accompanied by such seemingly desperate efforts to get out the vote as to give the impression of panic on the part of the government. Business owners have given workers time off and demanded to see their inked fingers to prove that they voted; fines are threatened against boycotters. Coptic Pope Tawadros II appeared on TV to urge all Copts to vote, and a group of sheikhs said the Prophet himself opposed electoral boycotts. (I want to check the hadith on that one.) TV commentators were frantically trying to get people to vote, denouncing boycotters as traitors and such. But if turnout is below 50%, does that mean most of the country are traitors?  One urged women to deny their husbands their favors if the husbands didn't vote.

Few are likely to assume that they are being urged to vote for Hamdeen Sabbahi. Sisi is going to win, but if the turnout is below that Morsi received in 2012 (26 million, 52% of eligible voters), his claims to enormous support will seem hollow. After the second day of voting today, officials said turnout had reached 37%, but that is still disappointing, and the Sabbahi campaign had been citing much lower numbers. (Nor did it help that Sisi publicly expressed hope in one of his last pre-vote inrerviews for a turnout of 40 million, which would be 80% of the electorate, setting the bar impossibly high.)

Muslim Brotherhood supporters are the most obvious group boycotting, but reports also suggest young people are not voting, perhaps disillusioned by the foreordained result.

In the Nasser, Sadat, and most of the Mubarak years, turnout numbers were routinely inflated or just invented. But that was before everyone had a video camera in their pocket and the ability to tweet photos worldwide in an instant. Photos and videos of empty polling places, like the one at the top of this post, are all over the Internet. And social media is full of direct testimony:
The return of Bassem Youssef's satirical TV show, which was put on hiatus so as not to unduly "influence" the vote, has now been postponed again. Obviously, the auhorities are sensitive about what is looking like an electoral debacle.

I suspect the panicky, desperate responses today are going to make the authorities look worse than the poor turnout will.

Here's a subtitled selection of talk show hosts and commentators, most of whom blame the public for shirking their civic duties:

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