Conduct an informal poll of friends, colleagues, family members or neighbours, and you will almost immediately come to the realisation that an overwhelming majority of your "sample" has never voted, nor have most of its members ever took the trouble to register to vote. Yet as the country prepares for parliamentary elections towards the end of this month, government officials and the news media have been tossing around an astounding figure: there 40 million registered voters in the country.
The number is understandably confusing and sounds, if anything, highly implausible. Egyptians are required to obtain voting ID cards in order to actually vote. Shouldn’t "registered" signify an actual ability to vote? Apparently not. Otherwise this would mean that half of all Egyptians have willingly undergone a bureaucratic spree to obtain these cards – a nonsensical proposition given consistently poor voter turnout in Egyptian elections and referendums.
After some persistent badgering of the General Electoral Administration (GEA), a body of the interior ministry responsible for updating the number of registered voters annually, Ahram Online finally arrived at an explanation, of sorts. The 40 million figure only refers to the number of Egyptians who are eligible to vote – that is, who are over the age of 18. A spokesperson for the GEA told Al-Ahram Online that the Administration indeed defines citizens as "registered" in "an automatic process.”
However, to be registered and actually able to vote, citizens must first make sure they are registered and confirm their intent to vote at a police station in their neighborhood, before then being issued a voting card (on occasion, up to two or three months later). Yet, even this procedure, which is usually under-advertised, is offered only during a 3-month window, between November and January.
Once a voting card is finally mailed to the recipient, a surprisingly little known law (number 73 of the year 1956) kicks in. Two of its articles are highlighted as "guidelines" on the back of every issued voting card. These articles state that, firstly, those who do not vote in an election or referendum will be fined. Secondly, if individuals vote more than once, or while knowing that their names are registered falsely, or if they vote under someone else’s name, they will be jailed or fined.
The penalty for abstaining from voting is stipulated not to exceed LE100. Given levels of voter turnout in the past, which rarely exceed 23 per cent even according to state figures, this would suggest that the government could potentially collect hundreds of millions of pounds in fines with every referendum.
However, according to Magdy Hussein, a lawyer working with the Law Consultancy Hotline Service (2326), “This law is supposed to act more as an incentive – it would be very impractical to actually try to collect these fines.” He also added that, if the penalty is not imposed within six months of an election, it becomes invalid.
Moreover, it’s unclear what voter turnout percentages really refer to. For example, when a 23 per cent voting rate is reported, does it refer to Egypt’s general population, to its registered voters, or to those with actual voting cards? The GEA told Al-Ahram Online that there is no data available as to how many Egyptians actually have voting cards. Yet even the figure 40 million registered or “potential” voters appears dubious in itself. Given Egypt’s population of approximately 80 million, the Authority’s figure suggests that half of all Egyptians must be under 18.
According to the last population census, in 2006, nearly 32 per cent of the population is under 15 years of age. It seems unlikely that adding to this percentage those whose ages are between 16 and 17 will raise the number to 50 per cent. However, the GEA insists that it takes every possible measure to update its registry, taking into full account annual deaths and the number of newly-turned 18 year-olds.