El Sisi’s supporters look to boost turnout in Egypt referendum
Various tactics and incentives are being used to encourage people to the polls, regardless of which way they are going to vote
On the final day of what the Egyptian media has dubbed a “patriotic epic” and a “victory”, people across the country on Monday voted in a referendum on significant constitutional changes that would potentially allow President Abdel Fattah El Sisi to stay in office for another 11 years.
The proposals, if backed by the public, also include boosting representation of women, minorities and expats in parliament and give the military a supreme political role.
Referendums have historically had low turnouts in Egypt, a country of 100 million people where apathy was widespread and ballot stuffing common until a short time ago.
But things have changed since a 2011 popular uprising toppled the 29-year regime of Hosni Mubarak. Along with many of the vestiges of his rule, outright vote rigging has been consigned to the past.
But what has replaced it is a mix of nudges and incentives to get people to the polls, regardless of which way they then vote – although authorities make no secret of the result they want.
Cairo, the capital, and cities across the country have been plastered with banners and billboard advertisements urging a "yes" vote. The pro-government press, radio and television channels are also urging a "yes" vote.
The current three-day poll on the constitutional amendments is a clear example of the new trend when polls open in Egypt.
The focus is on getting a respectable turnout – topping 40 per cent would mark a success in the eyes of the bill’s supporters – in order to avoid questions of legitimacy.
Pro-government political parties and businessmen have apparently entered an alliance to do their bit to boost turnout, with the apparent blessing – or at the very least a tacit acceptance – of the authorities. This process is playing out in full view of polling stations and police and is common knowledge among voters.
Based on over a dozen interviews with voters and business owners, the main thrust of the plan is to offer rewards for those who come to the polls.
After casting a ballot, voters must dip their finger in red ink to prevent people from casting several votes. Those who show their red-inked finger are given their reward by an individual or group near the polling station – usually a cardboard box of food items like cooking oil, rice, sugar and rice.
The food parcels appear to be proving particularly effective as many in the country have struggled to make ends meet after far-reaching economic reforms sparked steep price hikes over the past three years.
But, those receiving the boxes do not report being instructed on how to vote, they are simply encouraged to actually turn out.
It is virtually impossible to tell how widespread is this practice, but it appears prevalent in poorer areas.
"I have been burned by the high prices, but I still want to give him [Mr El Sisi] the time he needs to improve our lives," Hassan, a 55-year-old self-employed man from Cairo, told The National. “Why do I think so? Because we have been fully preoccupied all our lives with paying bills and feeding our families. We are accustomed to hardship. It cannot get any worse. So, why not give this man a chance?"
In this referendum, there is a prevailing sentiment among many Egyptians that the rule of Mr El Sisi equates to stability and security. Also influenced by years of sham elections before 2011, many simply do not believe that casting a “no” vote would make a difference, but there is also a concern that if they are wrong on this then there could be a return to years of turmoil and violence.
The key amendment being voted on in the referendum is to extend the presidential terms from four to six years, while keeping the two-term cap on sitting presidents stipulated in the 2014 constitution. But it adds a tailor-made clause for Mr El Sisi to extend his current four-year term by two years and allow him to run for a new six-year term when his current time in office ends in 2024. Mr El Sisi has yet to say whether he would seek that third term. As is customary, the president hasn’t spoken publicly about the constitutional changes.
Other amendments give the president more control over the judiciary, grant the military a supreme political role as the "guardian" of the state and its institutions, allocate women 25 per cent of parliament's seats and ensure a "suitable" representations for minorities, Egyptian expatriates and people with special needs.
Another will create an upper house or senate and the post of at least one vice president.
But the changes have been criticised by some as a return to the era of Mr Mubarak. They point out that, already, there has been a widespread crackdown against dissent and stringent regulations placed on rights groups and the press that they say curtail their independence.
Another tactic to boost turnout has also seen business owners corralling votes from their employees, as well as powerful families also agreeing to deliver a set number of voters to the polls.
In Zamalek, an upscale Cairo district with a large number of cafes, restaurants and hotels, voters waiting in line outside one polling centre were almost all workers in their uniforms.
They carried cards provided by police to the business owners bearing Egypt's flag on one side and the name of the establishment they work for on the other. The cards allowed the workers to vote at a polling centre in Zamalek other than the one where they are registered.
Once they cast their vote, they get the card stamped by designated individuals – believed to be helpers from pro-government parties – outside the polling centre. The cards are given back to employers who return them to the police to show workers have voted, according to the business owners.
"The police did not tell me what will happen if I don't comply. They don't need to," the owner of a fast food business in Zamalek told The National.
The tactics to boost the turnout are not new.
During last year's presidential election, which Mr El Sisi won comfortably, government workers, teachers and employees of big businesses said they were transported to polling centres and instructed to show evidence that they cast a ballot upon their return to work. Those who did not comply say they were admonished or disciplined.
In its coverage of the referendum, the pro-government press has painted an upbeat picture of a nation that is going to the ballot box to cement stability and push the country closer to economic prosperity.
Splashed on the front pages were images of hundreds of voters standing in line outside polling centres, along with other pictures showing elderly voters being helped to their polling station by family members or soldiers. There was even a couple on their wedding day, voting while wearing a tuxedo and white gown.
"A turnout exceeding expectations," read the red headline banner of Monday's edition of the state owned Al Ahram newspaper.
Yasser Rizq, a senior editor who is widely thought to be the closest journalist to Mr El Sisi, wrote on Sunday that he expected a turnout of no less than 38 per cent of Egypt’s 60 million voters. A "yes" vote would be backed by 95 per cent of voters, he said, without saying what he based his predictions on.
He said the move by some of the president’s supporters during the build-up to the weekend vote to shift focus away from Mr El Sisi’s extension to other elements, such as the women’s representation, had been “nonsense”. He said supporters should relish the idea of Mr El Sisi staying in power.
"With all due respect, people are not going to flock to polling stations to increase to 25 per cent a women's quota in parliament or for the creation of a senate or changing some of the rules pertaining to the judiciary," Mr Rizq wrote in Sunday's edition of the daily Al-Akhbar.
"If things go as we wish ... we will have created a new Egypt by 2030," he said.
Updated: April 23, 2019 11:50 AM