Egyptian authorities have warned people to vote or risk paying a fine, as they look to boost turnout in a lackluster election that is virtually guaranteed to hand President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi a second four-year term.
El-Sissi faces only a token opponent in the vote, which resembles the 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 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. On Tuesday, he told reporters that voting was a “national duty,” without elaborating.
The government is hoping for high turnout to lend the election legitimacy, and has staggered the voting over three days, with polls closing Wednesday at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT). Official results are expected on April 2.
The National Election Authority said in a statement Wednesday it will enforce a law penalizing 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.
Turnout appears to be low so far, with short lines in front of some polling stations and others virtually empty. El-Sissi’s only opponent is Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who supports the president and made no effort to campaign against him.
Local media, which are dominated by pro-government commentators, have urged people to come out and vote, saying they have a national obligation to resist foreign plots aimed at sowing discord. Groups of loyalists can be seen clapping and dancing in front of some polling stations, as patriotic music plays from loudspeakers.
Outside a polling station in Cairo’s Manial neighborhood, about two dozen voters, mainly older people, lined up in front of the gates shortly before polls opened.
“I am here because I need security and stability,” said 44-year-old government employee Amina el-Sayed. She said her manager gave her and her colleagues a day off to vote.
Sayada Fathi, a 62-year-old voter, said she wasn’t bothered by the lack of competition.
“Our beloved el-Sissi will win easily,” she said.
In Cairo’s heavily populated, working-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 out 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 the judges.
El-Sissi won 96.9 percent of the vote in 2014, with official turnout of more than 47 percent.
Saadia Ali, a housewife and mother of five, said she came because she hopes things get better. “Just tell them that our houses are collapsing and on my street they are not doing anything to fix it.
“Why didn’t they have more than one candidate?” she asked, after casting her vote.
At Saleh Hamad school in Shubra, only 3,500 of 12,000 eligible voters cast their votes by midday, or about 29 percent, polling judges there said. Christians 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.
“If there were more than one strong candidate, it would have been different for sure,” he said.
Text from the AP news story, Egypt votes on final day, with all eyes on turnout, by Maggie Michael and Samy Magdy.
Photos Nariman El-Mofty and Amr Nabil
Visual artist and Digital Storyteller at The Associated Press