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Egyptian voters 'cajoled and bullied' into polling booth

Voter turnout in parts of Cairo was as low as 7 percent on Monday [AP]

Date of publication: 27 March, 2018

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As voter turnout dwindles at 7 percent in some areas, Egyptian authorities have deployed an array of tactics to mobilise voters, from cash incentives to intimidation.

As Egyptian polling stations open their doors to voters, reports of people being threatened and bullied into casting a ballot are rife as President Abdelfattah al-Sisi seeks high voter turnout to grant his assured landslide victory a veneer or credibility.

One manager threatened employees who didn't vote - and then checked for their ink-stained finger as they clocked in the next day, reported the Associated Press. A regional governor pledged improved water and sanitation service to towns with a high turnout. Some people were promised more food and even cash if they went to the polls.

For months ahead of the balloting that began on Monday and runs until Wednesday, pro-government media have pushed the message that voting is a "patriotic duty" in order to counter foreign plots against Egypt.

But as the election has neared, officials are using a mixture of rewards, bullying and cajoling to boost turnout. This concerted drive has been undertaken by an array of officials and government workers, including regional governors, community and religious leaders, police and teachers.

The election comes amid the harshest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history, with thousands of Islamists and secular activists in jail. It has been dismissed as a sham by opposition leaders and rights groups, and a call for a boycott by the opposition was criticised by government supporters as tantamount to treason.

The get-out-the-vote campaign has enlisted all elements of society, from secular to religious.

In Qalyubiyah province in the Nile Delta, the local branch of Al-Azhar designated heads of affiliated schools and seminaries to escort the groups to polling stations and "monitor them until their return, when they verify that everyone has a finger stained with phosphoric ink," according to a March 20 memo obtained by the AP.

Some campaigns have been more heavy handed.

A top official of the street vendors' union in Cairo said he [was] threatened by authorities to get members to vote if they wanted to be spared stepped-up raids and confiscation of goods by police

A top official of the street vendors' union in Cairo said he and other board members were threatened the previous week by authorities to get their members to vote if they wanted to be spared stepped-up raids and confiscation of goods by police and municipal officials.

In several southern provinces, including Assiut, Sohag and Minya, police have been going door to door to order people to the polls, according to voters and witnesses.

Employees at a state-owned water and sanitation company in Cairo said Tuesday that their manager kept a promise made the previous day to be standing by their punch-in clock and checking their fingers for proof of voting when they reported to work.

"Our manager told us in a threatening tone: 'You are on an election mission. You have to vote if you know what's good for you,'" employee Mohammed Abdel-Raouf told AP.

At some schools, headmasters have threatened to send names of students who didn't vote to authorities.

Reports of voting incentives from government officials also have emerged.

The governor of Beheira, told a TV interviewer this week that villages and towns with a high voter-participation rate would be rewarded with improvements in their local water and sanitation services

The governor of Beheira, a Nile Delta province north of Cairo, told a TV interviewer this week that villages and towns with a high voter-participation rate would be rewarded with improvements in their local water and sanitation services.

Another official, Gov. Magdy Hegazy of Aswan province in the south, promised unspecified financial rewards to the district with the highest participation, according to the website of state-run TV.

A March 24 memo from the secretary general of the New Valley province in western Egypt to heads of its town and district councils spelled out funds that would be spent on improving public services to the six localities with the biggest turnout. The top category, for 3,000 votes or more, was for 5 million Egyptian pounds (about $284,000), according to the memo obtained by the AP.

Aya Kamal, a resident in the Cairo suburb of Matariya, said she was promised extra food rations if she showed proof of voting to a shopkeeper at a state-designated store. She said the plan was being funded by the largest parliamentary coalition, which supports the government.

A charity led by another pro-government lawmaker, Saad el-Gamal, is paying for buses to take voters to the polls in el-Aqwaz, a village about 80 kilometers south of Cairo.

We encourage people to vote. That is democracy, isn't it?

Fatima Abdel-Latif, 66, said she and other villagers were promised 100 EGP ($5.70) each if they go to the charity's office and show their ink-stained fingers.

"We encourage people to vote. That is democracy, isn't it?" said Amr Saad, a civil servant who works for the charity.

It was not immediately clear if all the tactics were working.

Turnout on Tuesday, the second day of voting, was described by the election commission as "heavy" in Cairo, the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and in northern Sinai, epicenter of an insurgency by Islamic State-aligned militants. It provided no figures.

At a polling station in Cairo's Sixth of October suburb, where about 8,000 voters are registered, judges supervising the balloting said Monday's turnout had been about 14 percent.

One judge said that voters talked of being coerced.

Ministries, government agencies, large supermarkets. ... You see groups coming together and you can ask them and see what brought them

"I have been hearing stories that hurt my ears," he said. "Ministries, government agencies, large supermarkets. ... You see groups coming together and you can ask them and see what brought them."

Across the street, 19-year-old engineering student Salma Mohammed said older Egyptians were pressuring younger ones to vote for Sisi.

"Most of the youth see this as a farce," she said, adding that some of her friends had been unjustly accused of extremism under Sisi's rule. "There are no freedoms, but he also brought security."

Local broadcasters have been showing modest lines of voters across much of the nation, along with some polling places that appeared to be deserted at times.

At four polling stations in the greater Cairo area, turnout was as low as 7 percent on average by about 6 pm on Monday, three hours before closing, AP reported. 

Turnout in the southern region is not much higher, with turnout generally ranging between 10 and 20 percent.

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