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Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sissi cruised to a landslide victory in an election some claim was little more than political theater. Low voter turnout could threaten his claims of public popularity and mandate to govern.
In an election he was universally expected to win, low voter turnout, irregularities in voting and the unprecedented move to extend the elections into a third day threatened to undermine the legitimacy of former army general Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, nearly one year after he led the toppling of the country's first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
Provisional results early Thursday (29.05.2014) showed the military strongman had swept elections with over 90 percent of the vote. His sole competitor, Hamdeen Sabahi, had a mere 3.8 percent, with the number of invalid ballots exceeding this at just over 4 percent.
"We came out of a year with these horrible creatures and it was Sissi and the army who saved us. This is what Egyptians want," said Nermin Nazim, a 50-year-old jewelry designer who voted for Sissi. The reference was to the Muslim Brotherhood, the group of former president Morsi.
Celebrations at Tahrir Square
Fireworks erupted and supporters took to the streets of the Egyptian capital as preliminary results began to emerge late Wednesday night. In Cairo's Tahrir Square, around a thousand supporters funneled in to celebrate late into the night, singing nationalist songs, waving flags and taking photos with police.
Sissi had sought a high turnout in the presidential elections to prove his move to topple Morsi represented the will of the people. But while die-hard supporters were seen at the polls when they opened on the first day, as the elections progressed, voter numbers dwindled.
The low turnout was initially evidenced by the government's decision to declare Tuesday a holiday in order to encourage workers to vote. Public transportation fees were waived and shopping malls were closed early.
Soon state and private media, who long have claimed that Sissi enjoys enormous public support, seemed to admit the low turnout with signs of panic.
"Do you want me to strip naked on air?" presenter Tawfik Okasha, of the Faraeen private television channel, asked viewers after offering to kiss the feet of viewers' parents if they voted.
"Anybody who does not vote is giving the kiss of life to the terrorists," Mustafa Bakry, a politician and television talk show host, said on his broadcast Monday night. "Those who do not come out are traitors. Traitors who are selling out this country.”
Members of the Sissi campaign also conceded the low turnout.
"In the last elections, it was a very close margin, however in this election everyone is sure of the result due to the huge difference in popularity between the two candidates. No one feel danger or a sense of urgency," Ahmed Ayad, a member of Sissi's campaign, told DW on Tuesday.
In an unprecedented move on Tuesday afternoon, the Presidential Elections Committee announced elections would be extended a third day.
"It is like having a football match, then saying it will continue for half an hour longer so that one team can win," said Ahmed Elenany, a member of Sabahi's electoral committee to DW. "It's the same tactics of the old regime, and we are going back to the ways of elections before 2011."
The Sabahi campaign announced it would withdraw all its monitors from polls on Wednesday and complained that many of its campaign members were arrested or assaulted by the police for attempting to observe voting. Images of beaten and bruised campaigner workers circulated online. Elenany said among many others, a member of the campaign's legal team was arrested and referred to military prosecution.
Activists and campaigners said the irregularities come amid an already repressive political atmosphere, where thousands of dissidents have been killed and thousands more have been jailed.
Democracy International, a non-governmental organization monitoring the elections, said in a statement that the decision to extend voting for a third day "raises more questions about the independence of the election commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt's electoral process."
Ahead of the vote, Sissi said he hoped for a turnout of over 70 percent, but after the third day of voting, estimates by pro-Sissi media said only 38 percent to 44 percent of the country's eligible voters had gone to the polls.
Analysts questioned how turnout will challenge the former military strongman's ability to claim he has a mandate to rule.
"There has been a narrative that he is widely popular - this cult of personality - and the state and private media have been in a frenzy, but we never really had an accurate sense,” said Samer Shehata, an Egyptian political scientist at the University of Oklahoma and expert on Egypt. "The low turnout makes it harder to claim legitimacy at the ballot box, to claim that this was not a coup last summer against a democratically elected leader."
Other analysts said the low turnout was all but expected with thesignificant number of Egyptians who boycotted, including both Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secular activists.
"It's important to manage expectations," said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, noting that the turnout in the first free presidential election in 2012 was also relatively low at 46.4 percent.
"The way that the Sissi campaign recklessly blundered about in the past few days, the way they lacked a campaign and a political apparatus by which to get out the vote and mobilize people at all - these are all warning signs to me that there is a fundamental lack of competence." Hanna added that the low turnout is indicative of a general political apathy among the public.
On Wednesday night, a group of friends, all of whom participated in the country's 2011 election, sat in a café and discussed the vote. Some had voted for Sabahi, but most had decided to boycott.
"I voted for Sabahi because Sissi is a killer," said Marwa Kenawy, a 40-year-old mother of two. Asked if she thought Sabahi would win, she laughed and said no.
Her friend Ali Hadouta chose to boycott the election."It's all a theater," he said.