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The New Arab & agencies

Egypt begins counting votes in lacklustre presidential election

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is virtually guaranteed a second four-year term in office [AFP]

Date of publication: 29 March, 2018

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Authorities have started counting ballots after the conclusion of a lacklustre election contested by the current president and a supporter of his regime.

Egyptian authorities began counting ballots after polls closed on Wednesday in a lacklustre vote virtually guaranteed to hand President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a second four-year term in office.

Members of the public were warned to vote or risk paying a fine, in an attempt by authorities to force a high turnout that would lend legitimancy to the election.

Sisi faced only a token opponent in the vote, which resembled referendums held by autocrats for decades before the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 briefly raised hopes of democratic change.

Serious challengers were forced out or arrested, including former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who showed up late on Tuesday at a polling center to cast his ballot. It was his first public appearance since he announced his intention to run in December from the United Arab Emirates, where he had gone after narrowly losing the 2012 election to the Islamist Mohammed Morsi.

The UAE deported Shafiq after the announcement, and he was met at the Cairo airport by unidentified security men who escorted him to a hotel on the city's outskirts. He decided against running soon thereafter, fuelling speculation that he had been coerced into withdrawing.

On Tuesday, Shafiq told reporters that voting was a "national duty," without elaborating.

'Bullied' to the polling booth

The government is hoping for high turnout to lend the election legitimacy, and has staggered the voting over three days. Polls were initially to close Wednesday at 9 pm but voting was extended for an hour. Ballot counting started immediately after polls closed. Official results are expected on Monday.

The National Election Authority said in a statement on Wednesday it will enforce a law penalising boycotters with a fine of around $30. Similar warnings have been issued in previous elections, with no real enforcement.

Nearly 60 million Egyptians are eligible to vote at some 13,700 polling centers. El-Sissi won 96.9 percent of the vote in 2014, with an official turnout of more than 47 percent. In the 2012 election, which saw heightened competition between Islamists and opponents, turnout reached 52 percent.

In the polling centers this year, turnout appeared low over the first two days of voting, then started to gain momentum by midday Wednesday, with short lines in front of some polling stations. Sisi's only opponent is Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who supports the president and made no effort to campaign against him.

Mahmoud el-Sherif, the spokesman of the election commission, said on Wednesday at a press conference that the highest turnout was in Cairo, the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, and in northern Sinai, the epicenter of an insurgency by Islamic militants.

In Cairo's heavily populated, middle-class district of Shubra, a trickle of voters, mainly older women, could be seen outside two polling stations. Judges supervising the polling centers said that of 7,800 registered voters, some 3,000 cast ballots, or around 38 percent. In a nearby polling center, the turnout reached 34 percent, according to figures provided by judges there.

Saadia Ali, a housewife and mother of five, told AP she came because she hopes things will get better. "Just tell them that our houses are collapsing and on my street they are not doing anything to fix it," she said.

Sisi's 'last' term

In the runupn to the vote, several pro-government lawmakers and media figures promoted proposed amendments to allow Sisi to stay in office beyond eight years.

Sisi has said that he is not in favor of amending constitutional provisions barring the president from staying in office beyond two four-year-terms.

At Saleh Hamad school in Shubra, at least 3,500 of 12,000 eligible voters cast their votes by midday, or about 29 percent, polling judges there said. Christians, strong supporters of Sisi for challenging Islamists, make up a large portion of voters in the district. They constitute around 10 percent of Egypt's predominantly Muslim population.

Father Marcus Ibrahim, a Coptic Christian priest who brought his son with him, said the church told worshippers to go and vote without supporting a certain candidate.

"This is the only way for change. It's slow but it will happen as long as we keep participating. I brought my son and told him to sign the ballot and drop it in the box so he gets used to it," he said.

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