A lacklustre victory for Egypt’s general

Al-Jazeera reports this morning from “judicial sources” in Egypt that with votes counted from 50% of polling stations, military ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has 91.8% of the ballots for president, against 3.4% for his leftist challenger Hamdeen Sabahi and 4.8% informal. That would give Sisi almost 96.5% of the formal vote, which is pretty much in line with expectations.

Any illusion that this was a free election would have been dispelled yesterday when the military unilaterally extended the voting for a day in order to boost turnout – the only number that there was any uncertainty about. But even with the extra day it only reached 44.4%. That’s an improvement on the 38.6% from January’s constitutional referendum, but well down on the 51.8% that voted in the second round of the 2012 presidential election.

As Juan Cole says, “For the electorate to be substantially less enthusiastic about al-Sisi now than it was about [Mohamed] Morsi then is a huge embarrassment.”

High election turnout usually reflects one of two things: either an engaged, competitive democracy, where people care about the result, or a dictatorship, where the authorities dragoon people into voting or just fabricate the figures. (Australia, funnily enough, combines elements of both.)

Conversely, a low turnout shows voters who are dissatisfied with the choice they’re offered, or who regard the outcome as a foregone conclusion, or who are expressing their apathy or hostility towards the regime.

No doubt all those elements are at work in Egypt. Most of the forces opposed to the military were advocating a boycott, and even those who supported Sisi knew that there was no chance of him losing. One can only imagine how low the turnout would have been if the government wasn’t going to such lengths to encourage it.

According to the BBC, Sabahi said that “his team had recorded ‘violations’ in the voting process,” which also would not be surprising. It’s another characteristic of dictators that they tend to over-egg the pudding, resorting to shady practices way beyond the point necessary to secure victory.

Still, General Sisi will have his mandate, such as it is. And there’s no doubt that many Egyptians support him wholeheartedly, trusting him to bring clean and efficient government that will sort out Egypt’s myriad problems. But if he fails to measure up, then the masses – although silenced this time – may yet succeed in having their voices heard.

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