Giza, Egypt – Did Egyptians stream to the polls, or did they only trickle?
Turnout over two days of voting that ended on Sunday night will help delineate the legitimacy of the country’s first post-uprising president, but the people’s mandate may matter little with the military controlling crucial executive and legislative powers.
Neither the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi nor former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq has inspired an excited following, and observations from election monitors and the media described empty polling places, few queues and a public that was unhappy and unenthusiastic about its choice.
The Supreme Presidential Election Commission said turnout was significantly lower than during the first round in late May, when 46 per cent of around 51 million eligible voters participated, echoing estimates from the two campaigns.
Though turnout may have increased by the time polls closed on Sunday, Brotherhood organisers in the Morsi stronghold of Beheira, in the Nile Delta, said it had not exceeded 10 per cent by early afternoon on Saturday.
Yet a low turnout would benefit Morsi’s campaign, backed as it is by a Brotherhood machine with years of political experience and a huge, battle-tested organisation, observers said. Brotherhood organisers also hoped that recent court rulings and power grabs by the military leaving parliament on the brink of dissolution and constitutional power in the generals’ hands would rally non-ideological voters to their side.
“We are not just a political party, we are an organised group, each one of us asked 100 people to go vote for our candidate, that’s why the military leaders are afraid of us,” said Ahmed Nagi, a 30-year-old Brotherhood worker observing the vote outside a school in Giza. “Our PR is guaranteed, we can ask them and they come.”
Not far away, in the Pyramid-side Shafiq stronghold of Nazlat el-Semman, 40-year-old Shafiq worker Qazim el-Adaweya agreed that low turnout was in Morsi’s favour.
“Morsi exploits people’s understanding of religion,” he said.
He dismissed those who might boycott the vote.
“In that case, I blame the people who didn’t vote, not the candidate himself,” he said.
Anas al-Qassas, a political consultant who often works for the Brotherhood, said he believed the Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve parliament, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and Salafi Nour Party – had left voters incapable of accusing the Brotherhood of sitting on the cusp of political domination.
“Morsi will have bigger votes than Shafiq and the demographic map will be reshuffled in the second round,” he said. “Shafiq had so many chances regarding motivating the voters … and his [claims] of forcing stability and security, this is not very accurate or realistic.”
Farouk Sultan, the chief of the presidential election commission, was quoted in Al Ahram newspaper on Sunday estimating that turnout had reached 40 per cent, but even if that is the case, it will mean Egypt’s first president since the the fall of Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago comes to power with not much more than 10 million votes in a country with nearly 90 million people.
Neither man is particularly beloved, and the vote has become more of a reactionary exercise, with many voters describing their choice as an act to prevent the other side from coming to power.
Morsi’s campaign has painted Shafiq as the second coming of Mubarak, a flunky for the old regime who was appointed Mubarak’s final prime minister just in time to be in power during the February 2 “Camel Battle” in Tahrir Square, that saw government supporters violently attempt to overrun protesters, with deadly results.
Shafiq, meanwhile, has unleashed a barrage of attacks on Morsi, many of them untruthful, accusing him and the Muslim Brotherhood of killing protesters during the revolt and planning to privatise the Suez Canal and sell the Sinai Peninsula.
The electoral fight between the two has polarised Egyptian politics, leaving both sides angry and nervous over what a victory by the other will mean, and a huge swath of citizens caught between, forced to support a second choice or to boycott the process. No matter who wins, tens of thousands of Egyptians will be unhappy.
At another polling station in Nazlat el-Semman, Adaweya indicated a group of people shouting at each other.
“Here things are even hotter in terms of divisions between people, even families are divided, yesterday someone here was fighting with his uncle because they disagree,” he said.
Helping monitor the vote in the area for Shafiq was Abdurrahman el-Shaer, the 22-year-old nephew of an interior ministry general who had been charged along with Mubarak and others for using deadly force on protesters during the uprising and was acquitted earlier this month.
Shaer never went to Tahrir Square and felt that protests had ruined business and tourism in the country. He also expected voters who had supported other candidates to rally behind Shafiq.
“Did you see Shafiq’s interview on CBC, where he said the men on the rooftops who shot at protesters had beards,” he asked.
Despite voting fatigue – counting runoffs, Egyptians have gone to the polls six times since the uprising – it seemed many still had strong convictions over the man they wanted to see in office, even if they didn’t think he would make a difference in their daily lives.
Zaki Safwat Zaki, a dry cleaner in Giza who said he belonged to no particular Islamic current, said he had voted for Morsi since the first round because he wanted to see Islamic law implemented.
Karim Mohammed Ismail, a 21-year-old car mechanic, and Nasser Mohammed, a 37-year-old in the tourism industry who was getting his tires filled, both said they preferred Shafiq.
Down the street, three young men arranging thirty-foot-long plastic pipes at a construction site explained their views.
Hassan, a 19-year-old who voted for former Arab League chief Amr Moussa in the first round, said he would vote for Shafiq.
“He knows Mubarak well, and he wouldn’t be another Mubarak, he’d try to be a better man,” he said.
Ahmed, another worker, said he would vote for Shafiq after abstaining in the first round, since he wanted employment and stability, and someone who would keep religion a personal and not public matter.
But Osama, a 19-year-old who voted for moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the first round, said he would vote Morsi because wanted religion more present in society. But that none of the candidates would do much, having just “made a lot of promises”.
“I just want any kind of change,” he said.