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Egypt Presidential Elections 2018: Unravelling the statistics

Akram Alfy deciphers the messages voters conveyed through their ballots

Akram Alfy , Friday 13 Apr 2018
Egyptians cast their votes at a polling station during the presidential election 2018
Egyptians cast their votes at a polling station during the presidential election in Cairo, Egypt, March 26, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

Incumbent President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has secured a second four-year term after winning 97 per cent of the votes cast.

Of 59 million eligible voters 40 per cent turned out to vote. Al-Sisi’s only rival, the hitherto largely unknown Moussa Mustafa Moussa, won 700,000 votes, a million less than the number of spoiled ballots.

In the absence of any other competitors, Moussa’s last minute appearance on the ballot paper prevented the election from turning into a referendum which, observers say, would have led to a weak turnout.

The circumstances of last month’s presidential poll were very different to the 2014 election which brought Al-Sisi to power. In 2014 presidential elections were held on the back of mass discontent with the violence perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Millions of Egyptians headed to the polls to demonstrate their support for the 30 June Revolution regime represented by Al-Sisi. This time round elections were held against a backdrop of far greater security and stability.

Opposition groups had called for a boycott of the vote and several youth groups launched social media campaigns to this effect. The Brotherhood picked up the same thread, using it to insinuate a majority of Egyptians opposed the regime and would boycott the elections.

The question of participation in the election was thus turned into a conflict between two parties. Campaigns supporting Al-Sisi focused on calls for participation rather than on advertising their candidate’s platform.

Talk of Al-Sisi’s achievements during his first term waned in favour of encouraging voters to go to the polls while the Brotherhood’s satellite channels in Turkey, and the Qatari based Al-Jazeera, called for people to stay at home in order to express their opposition to the regime.

It was in many ways a false debate. It negated both the impact of the vast improvement in security and stability achieved since the chaos of 2011 to 2013, and of the absence of real competition, on voters’ intentions, and, from the point of view of those promoting a boycott, was based on the false premise that a low turnout is synonymous with an active refusal to vote to press home a political message.

One need only consider the 2012 presidential election to see how mistaken the latter assumption is.

During the most competitive poll in memory turnout was 51 per cent, yet no one at the time assumed the remaining 49 per cent of voters boycotted the poll.

The fact is there is no way to measure the extent of any boycott when a large portion of regime supporters will not bother to cast a vote because they know beforehand they will win.

A more quantifiable tactic from the opposition would have been to call on supporters to go to the poll and spoil their ballot, or even vote for Moussa, though this was something that, for whatever reason, they chose not to do.

In the end pro-regime supporters were able to gather crowds and recreate the celebratory scenes from the 2014 presidential election.

The media and supporters of the regime also waved the threat of a LE500 fine to urge more people to vote regardless their political affiliation.

It worked. Large numbers showed up at polling stations on the third day of the vote pushing turnout above 40 per cent. More than 24 million registered voters cast their ballots, a considerable success for the pro-Sisi camp given that most independent analysts had expected just 15 to 18 million voters to show up at the polls.

So who comprised the voters these analysts had discounted? They appear to have been made up of the middle class, the same people who took to the streets during the 30 June Revolution and supported the mandate of July 2013.

They live mainly in Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, Lower Egyptian cities such as Benha, Zagazig, Mansoura, Shebin Al-Kom, towns along the Suez Canal and the Upper Egyptian conurbations of Beni Sweif, Assiut and Sohag.

Tellingly it is a group that has been seriously affected by the economic reforms adopted in the last three years.

Yet despite the lessening of security threats, and in the face of straitened economic circumstances, this middle-class group remains a pro-stability mass force actively supportive of the regime.

We must also consider women voters, particularly those over 40. This group of mothers, for whom security for their children is the most pressing concern, cuts across class boundaries.

Whether rich or poor, they regard the stability of the political regime as a red line that cannot be crossed.

A third group which intersects with the two above comprises Egypt’s Copts. They lined up behind Al-Sisi in the 2014 elections, took part in the 30 June Revolution, turned out in large numbers for the constitutional referendum and for presidential and parliamentary elections.

Their participation particularly boosted turnout in areas where they are concentrated, most notably in Shubra, coastal cities, and in Beni Sweif, Minya, Assiut and Sohag.

Yet overall it appears they comprised 10 per cent of total voters, a figure commensurate with their representation in the population as a whole.

The peasants of Lower Egypt, enthusiastic supporters of Al-Sisi and the 30 June regime, comprise another important group. Estimated to number 12 million registered voters, preliminary figures suggest six million turned up at polling stations.

Their heaviest participation was in the governorates of Gharbiya, Sharqiya and Kafr Al-Sheikh.

On the third day of elections, wary of the possibility of being fined LE500, large numbers of the poor headed towards voting stations.

The number of spoiled votes came as a surprise — a record breaking 7.2 per cent of the total vote, or 1.766 million ballot papers.

The number of spoiled votes surprised all parties, the pro-Sisi camp and the opposition as much as the Brotherhood. The voters exercised their right to spoil their votes without being encouraged to do so by any political group.

The pro-Sisi camp and the opposition both struggled to determine what such a large proportion of spoiled ballot papers could mean. Some media hosts managed to claim the spoiled votes expressed support for Al-Sisi and news outlets published ballot papers on which “I love you, Sisi” was written in an attempt to explain the unprecedented number.

Newspapers, including some from the West, showed images of ballot papers on which voters had written the name of Mohamed Salah, the famous Egyptian footballer.

The number of null votes could be seen as a creative way the middle class found to deliver a message to both the regime and opposition.

Some 1.766 million voters agreed — without any prior consultation — to spoil their votes. They were not members of any party or organisation, and acted without being called to do so in the media or on social networks.

Indeed, it could be argued the large number of spoiled ballots indicates the conscience of the 25 January and 30 June revolutions remains alive and that expressing discontent while maintaining stability, safety and development was important to a large number of voters.

Port Said topped the list of spoiled votes with 15 per cent of its total ballots cast, followed by Suez with 14 per cent, the governorates of the Red Sea, North Sinai and South Sinai, and then Cairo and Alexandria with more than nine per cent of the total votes cast spoiled.

The governorate of Port Said has always been first to send political messages to the regime. Port Said is Egypt’s richest governorate, and one conclusion we can draw from this fact is that the spoiled ballots increase in cities where there is a higher level of education, greater wealth and a stronger middle class.

There were far fewer spoiled votes in rural areas.

It is also worth noting that the number of spoiled votes increased significantly on the third day of elections.

The individual voting station to record the largest number of spoiled votes cast was New Minya, with more than 19 per cent.

The polling station is located in a neighbourhood dominated by the educated middle class, most of whom work in stable government jobs or the private sector.

Overall, levels of voter participation conveyed several messages, not least that the regime continues to command support as it acts to pursue economic reform.

Another message is that Al-Sisi can still depend on the public’s unwillingness to undermine the stability of the political regime.

The president’s popularity was affected by strict economic measures and the floatation of the Egyptian pound in November 2016 but the majority still prioritises security and stability over any deterioration in living conditions.

Spoiled votes, on the other hand, indicate a degree of anger in urban areas and among the middle classes.

They want more space in the political arena and greater freedom of opinion and expression.

The stronger message, however, is that calls for greater freedom do not include any form of reconciliation with the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood. 

* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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