On 29 May 2014, hours after the conclusion of an additional third day of voting, an expected outcome was confirmed. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Field Marshal and Ex-Military Chief, will be the next president of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Although official results expect to be announced in the coming days by the legally mandated Presidential Elections Commission (PEC), unofficial results reported by the judges supervising the polls, revealed an overwhelming victory for El-Sisi with 93% percent of the votes cast. Second and third place has yet to be decided as the only opponent, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, and the number of invalidated votes are each coming in with between three to four percent of the 25.6 million voters. This substantial number of invalided votes appears to be the result of a “positive boycott” by a group of activists who wished to express their support for the principle of democracy, but also their utter dissatisfaction with the current process, and therefore purposely voided their votes. It seems over one million Egyptian citizens ultimately followed this path.
Including this boycott, turnout is being reported to be around 46% of the total electorate of 54 million. This is far lower than El-Sisi’s wish of 40 million, which he expressed in his last television interview before the vote, and but only a few points lower than the 52% that came out for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi’s victory in 2012.
The PEC, the state and the Sisi campaign certainly can’t be blamed for a lack of effort in encouraging participation. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb declared Tuesday, 27 May a public holiday so work wouldn’t be a hindrance. PEC member Tarek Shebl reportedly threatened fines of $70 – LE500—referencing the electorate to Article 43 of the electoral law—on those who don’t have a valid reason for not voting. Sisi’s media supporters made impassionate pleas on their various platforms, with one claiming he would “cut his veins open” on air so Egyptians would vote, and others equating abstention with treason. But the most significant decision by the PEC was the extension, allowing voters to come to the polls for an extra day, referencing the hot conditions and Article 27 of the electoral law, which vaguely claims that the vote may be conducted “in one day or more,” but does not give any detail in terms of the conditions that warrant an extension.
A member of the Sisi campaign Ahmed Ayad explained the seemingly low turnout by the vast discrepancy in popularity between the two candidates, as the outcome was never in doubt and “no one feels danger or a sense of urgency.” It also cannot be discounted that Sisi’s twenty-four million supporters vastly outnumbered the thirteen million votes that Morsi received in 2012. This does seem to support the carefully constructed narrative that many observers and Sisi campaigners were hoping to be confirmed during the vote, that the army’s removal of Morsi was due to a substantial mass of popular pressure. But what the turnout figures also reveal is the presence of a great deal of political apathy (after three constitution-related referenda, three phases of parliamentary voting, and the second presidential election in the past three years), frustration and dissatisfaction with how transitional authorities and the army have run the country over the past 10 months, provoking images of the pre-revolutionary period. One prominent Egyptian columnist Wael Abdel-Fattah lamented in the Lebanese daily Assafair, “The shock here is in the state’s need to use its old tools to defend its nominee.”
International observers also seem to present a mixed view of the elections; the European Union commended the democratic and processional nature of the vote, applauding that it was “administered in line with the law,” but it fell short of “full compliance with applicable international standards for democratic elections” and its “own constitutional principles.” In their official preliminary statement, the EU EOM listed the freedoms of association, assembly and expression as areas of concern, stated the PEC’s decision to extend the vote “caused unnecessary uncertainty in the electoral process” and called for a new electoral law that provides better independent oversight on the administrative decisions of the PEC. Democracy International, a U.S. based international observer group also felt the broader electoral environment was compromised, due to the suppression of political dissent and restrictions on fundamental freedoms. The African Union and the Arab League have yet to issue their preliminary assessments until the final results are announced.
So what does this all mean?
After taking this quick snapshot of the domestic, regional and international media covering the Egyptian presidential election, there are many outlets making broad declaratory statements about how the numbers reveal a “weak mandate” and that it is a “pyrrhic victory” for the president. But those viewers would be wise to recall that what ultimately shook President Morsi’s legitimacy, wasn’t numbers or turnout, it was his inability to deliver on any of his promises, especially on the economic front, as well as the level of polarization that rose during his one year in power.
What is really going to define whether the president will garner a long-standing legitimacy or not, is his ability to deliver for the Egyptian people. The numbers game and the electoral loopholes that allowed the PEC to extend the vote just hours before the polls were set to close is going to be either a forgotten story, or the confirmation of a disturbing trend. This will depend primarily on how the government performs. This government’s survivability is contingent on how well they are going to serve and provide, particularly on the economic side of things. But whether Sisi is able to transcend his political base and build a broader coalition of support, will depend on his willingness to confront the challenge of polarization and create a platform for political inclusion. The Egyptian government has to realize that while they are able to get away with this kind of maneuvering to make numbers work during the election, they cannot maneuver their way around the number of starving people in Egypt. At the end of the day, it is these people and their needs from where real legitimacy is derived.