Cairo, Egypt – Polls closed after a three-day presidential election that incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is set to easily win, but questions remained whether enough voters showed up to lend it legitimacy.
Polling stations remained quiet throughout Wednesday with only a few people trickling in to periodically cast their ballots.
A prosecutor who oversaw one station in a Cairo suburb said voter turnout on the last day had been slightly lower than the first two, when numbers were estimated at well below the 47 percent of the electorate who backed Sisi during the last election in 2014.
“Only 1,306 people out of a total of 4,600 eligible voters have so far cast their vote,” the prosecutor, who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions, told Al Jazeera.
Sisi had urged high voter participation among the nearly 60 million eligible voters to affirm his legitimacy after all credible opponents dropped out in January, citing intimidation by authorities after his main challenger was jailed.
Lasheen Ibrahim, head of the national election commission, urged Egyptians on state television to come out and vote.
“Declare to the world that Egypt always makes history, for you are the Pharaohs, the makers of the civilisation that amazed the world. Oh great people of Egypt, complete the journey of the past two days as you have always presented the best example of faithful patriotism and stabbed the forces of evil in the chest,” said Ibrahim.
The election commission has already declared the vote was free and fair.
The election that kicked off on Monday has been largely viewed as a referendum on Sisi’s performance. He ran against one of his supporters, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who had endorsed him for a second term, and even organised events to help nominate the former military leader.
Carrots and sticks
In a push to increase voter turnout, Egypt’s state news agency reminded Egyptians on Wednesday morning that failing to vote was an offence punishable by fines of up to $28, a threat rarely acted on in previous elections.
Commenting on the statement, Magdy*, 34, said: “They [the Egyptian authorities] said that last time and nothing happened.
“They obviously expected the turnout to be low so they said that to make people fearful of not voting. They thought that [the warnings] might push them to vote, potentially increasing the numbers.”
Maha*, who told Al Jazeera she did not vote because she thought the election was “useless”, said: “I’d rather pay the [fine] because I don’t think it is worth wasting hours of my day. This is more of a referendum than an election.”
A video shared on Twitter on Tuesday showed a representative of the Egyptian Ministry of Education telling teachers at a school that they must show proof of their vote by signing a card that would be sent to the authorities using their inked fingertips.
Sticks were reinforced with carrots. Egyptian voters said they had received food, payments and other incentives to go to the polls.
Spoiled votes and boycotts
Despite the threats and incentives, however, it was clear many Egyptians decided to boycott the election or spoil ballots.
“Everyone has been talking about his achievements, but I’m not having any of it. Our salaries are low and I haven’t seen any improvements in my sector,” Maria*, a 38-year-old doctor, who marked an X for both candidates, told Al Jazeera.
“There has been no serious competition and we all know he is winning anyway,” she added.
Shukri*, 24, from downtown Cairo, told Al Jazeera the election had been useless.
“He [Sisi] is going to rule anyway, even if no one elects him. He will also change the constitution and replace the laws to allow him to remain in office,” he said.
Meanwhile, other people celebrated in the streets of Cairo as voting came to a close.
Loudspeakers outside polling stations blasted patriotic songs as men and women carrying Egyptian flags danced to the music.
“Sisi is a strong and courageous man. It is enough that he is fighting terrorism in Sinai,” said 56-year-old Antoine*, who cast his ballot for Sisi in the working-class neighbourhood of Dar al-Salam in southern Cairo.
Sisi said he has brought security and stability to the country during his four-year presidency, highlighting the war waged on armed groups.
However, Sisi has struggled to defeat groups linked to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Sinai Peninsula, which gained strength after Morsi’s overthrow, with regular attacks on security forces and deadly church bombings.
An attack on a mosque in November killed more than 300 people – the worst attack in Egypt’s modern history.
But like Antoine, Amany*, a 60-year-old housewife from downtown Cairo, agreed that Sisi was the right choice for Egypt.
“We have known him [Sisi] for four years and we know that he’s done many achievements. We should continue the journey with him and be patient,” she said.
*Names have been changed for security purposes