(Presidential candidate Sabahi, photo via Twitter)
Initially published in the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source
Smart lyrics that portray Egypt as a united people from various governorates are part of a catchy song sung by Emirati cultural ambassador Hussein Al-Jassmi’s urging Egyptians to vote in the 2014 presidential elections. The song features a “call for the Upper Egyptian, your cousins in Port Said, and the youth of Alexandria” to vote. This song is part of a new charm offensive by many Egyptian media outlets to encourage the public to vote in the name of patriotism, less than three days before the election. Jassmi’s song, produced by private Egyptian satellite channel CBC, is just one example of this offensive, which aims to counterattack any active boycott campaign and to prevent what the authorities fear most ___ a passive boycott.
The goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to “dent the legitimacy of the election” but whether they will succeed is doubtful. The best estimation of the number of core Brotherhood members is six million – those voters who endorsed Morsi in the first round of the 2012 presidential election. However, the recent Pew research poll shows a clear decline in the Brotherhood’s popularity, and many who voted for Morsi, particularly in the runoff, have changed their minds over the past two turbulent years. Even if we dismiss the Pew poll and assume that the Brotherhood’s base supporters are still intact, this represents just six million out of more than 50 million registered voters, a small percentage that makes the impact of a boycott and any claim of success dubious, to say the least. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the effect of the Brotherhood’s call for a boycott in the southern and western regions of Egypt, which are traditionally Islamist strongholds. The regional political map of Egypt may not have changed much, but could be reliable in assessing the impact of the active boycott on this election.
On the other hand, the Brotherhood is not alone; there are other groups calling for voters to boycott the election. Both the revolutionary April 6 movement and the Strong Egypt Party, led by ex-Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, have both called for a boycott. It is difficult to assess their impact on the ground, however. Both boycotted January’s constitutional referendum and there was no evidence to prove they had significant influence over voter opinion. The Strong Egypt Party, in particular, is relatively new and beyond the 2012 presidential elections, Abul Fotouh’s supporters have not been tested. Following Abul Fotouh’s disappointing performance in the elections, the party’s first crucial test will be the upcoming parliamentary elections, which, of course, will only take place if he decides to participate.
On the other hand, there is the possibility of a passive boycott, which can come about from indifference. In January 2014, 20 million Egyptians voted in the constitutional referendum, a turnout of 38 percent, a reasonable figure as far as referendums in Egypt is concerned. However, this also means over 30 million voters stayed home. If we deduct active boycotters ___ no more than 10 million by any generous estimation ____ then at least 20 million Egyptians did not vote, likely due to apathy. For many Egyptians, the results of the upcoming elections are a foregone conclusion, as ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win regardless of the turnout. Therefore, many will ask why they should bother standing in long queues in Egypt’s baking heat if the result is already known. This is the question the interim authority in Egypt dreads and has tried to address.
Accordingly, there has been a new ‘get-out-the-vote’ campaign to prompt Egyptians to vote, with many of the ads explicitly stating that voting is necessary in order to prove to the outside world that most Egyptians have embraced the roadmap.. The joyful tunes of new and old patriotic songs have always had an impact on the Egyptian public. For authorities, a victory for Sisi is not enough; they need a turnout to provide crucial legitimacy to the roadmap that followed Morsi’s ousting.
Although leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi is clearly viewed as the underdog in this election, the percentage of passive boycotters will depend on his ability to mobilize some of the apathetic voters and convince them their votes count, a task as difficult as his quest to win a respectable percentage of the vote. Many election observers in Egypt dismiss Sabbahi’s chances completely; however, again, the recent Pew research poll estimates Sisi’s popularity as being only 54 percent, an alarmingly low percentage that may indicate Sabbahi’s chances may not be as slim as some predict.
Can the expat votes give us a clue?
The answer in short is no. According to the election committee, 318,033 expatriates have cast their ballots, a slightly higher number than the 301,720 who voted in the run-off vote of the 2012 presidential poll. However, a closer look indicates that this increase was offset by the cancelation of the mail-in vote in this election, and the fact that Egyptians who are temporarily abroad were allowed to cast their votes without prior registration. The vote was also extended for an extra 24 hours this time. Moreover, Egyptians abroad are not truly representative of public opinion in Egypt. There is a big gap in the level of education and economic standards between Egyptians inside and outside Egypt, which can make extrapolation of the results unreliable. A look at the distribution of votes among expats in the first round of the 2012 presidential poll shows Shafiq scoring the lowest, but ending up ahead of the total vote, together with Morsi.
Thus far, in all his interviews, Sisi has emphasized the importance of the turnout in the presidential election. He understands, more than anyone else, that his legitimacy relies on the public voluntarily heading to the polling stations and voting, even if they nullify their ballots. That is why Jessmi’s cheerful song, which may sound silly to outsiders, is actually crucial, among other patriotic tunes, at this stage. The election campaign officially ends on Friday, but patriotic songs can go on throughout the voting process. The task is to achieve a decent turnout, but the ideal goal is to ensure at least the 50 percent turnout that was recorded in the second round of the 2012 election. It is unclear whether this goal will be achieved, but it is pointless to predict it.