Egypt's voting majority is basking in elation now that presidential elections are behind them and Abdel Fattah El Sisi's victory was decisive.
In recent weeks Cairo has been festooned with banners and posters hung by Mr El Sisi’s official campaign as well as private citizens and business owners, anxious to pledge their support. Wedding grooms dressed up as army officers, bridesmaids wore Egypt’s national colours and carried Mr El Sisi’s framed portrait along with their bouquets.
Despite his popularity, Mr El Sisi’s campaign was conducted with extreme reticence due to security concerns. There were no public appearances or debates with Hamdeen Sabahi, his sole opponent.
In his few pre-recorded interviews, Mr El Sisi stressed his love for Egypt and vowed to protect it without going into detail about how his government might mend its ills. With the Egyptian economy in crisis, his promise of security was clearly more compelling than Sabahi’s message of civil rights.
The issue was not whether Mr El Sisi would win, but how many Egyptians would cast their ballot. Mr El Sisi’s supporters hoped that 60 per cent of Egypt’s 54 million registered voters would hit the polls to beat the record 23.6m who took part in the 2012 presidential elections. Mohammed Morsi won in those run-offs with just 12.3m votes. Mr El Sisi swept the polls with 23m votes.
On Monday, the first day of voting, the polls were busy in my downtown neighbourhood, the epicentre of pro-democracy demonstrations in recent years, while those in Saft el Laban, a sprawling informal quarter of Cairo with a strong Islamist contingency, were quiet. That night, the state announced that the second day of elections would be an official holiday and on Tuesday that polling stations would remain open for a third day.
This unprecedented push to get out the vote was portrayed as a matter of national pride. The turnout represented a barometer of citizens’ willingness to do their duty but also their rejection of the persistent demands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters to restore Mohammed Morsi to the presidency. The banned Brotherhood encouraged a boycott as did pro-revolutionary groups, while media figures accused abstainers of “letting the terrorists win”.
Some Egyptians resented the media’s hectoring. “If I don’t like either one of these candidates that’s my democratic right”, said Karim, a 25 year-old working in his father’s grocery store. Campaign managers for both candidates apparently agreed that the extension was uncalled for.
But many average Egyptians approved of measures to encourage a high turnout and offered suggestions for more. Wael, 39, a downtown shop owner echoed the sentiment of a number of TV talk show hosts, that “America and Europe must see that Egypt is on the right path”, adding that the polls should have been open all night, so people could vote in cooler weather. A building guardian who was unable to travel to the polling station where he was registered said turnouts would be higher if people could vote near their work.
While Egypt has chosen another leader from the military establishment, its fifth since the monarchy’s overthrow in the 1950s, Mr El Sisi’s supporters insist the country is moving forward, citing a new political awareness and the triumph of secularism over an Islamist state as major steps towards democracy.
But Egyptians have yet to establish cohesive political parties with viable platforms. Elections remain a popularity contest, with candidates largely unconcerned about communicating specific plans. In that regard, Mr El Sisi’s overwhelming popularity may have backfired. Knowing he’d win anyway many saw no point in voting. Turnout might have been higher if the campaigns had offered more substance beyond “the sacrifice and hard work” often cited by Mr El Sisi as the necessary medicine for Egypt’s future good health.
As the celebratory fireworks began in Tahrir Square, a 19-year old man who works in his family’s kerbside snack kiosk, expressed a widely shared opinion.
“Yes, I voted for El Sisi”, he said. “Everyone loves a winner. If he helps things improve, that’s great. If not, there was a president before him and there will be another after.”
Maria Golia is a Cairo-based author and writer