Egypt tries to boost voter turnout with incentives and threats

28.03.2018

One manager threatened employees to get them to vote – and then checked for telltale ink-stained fingers as they clocked in the next day. A regional governor pledged improved water and sanitation service to towns with a high turnout. Some people were promised more food and even cash if they went to the polls.

With President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi running virtually unopposed in this week's election, Egypt's leadership has made clear it considers a high turnout crucial to ensuring that the balloting has credibility.

For months ahead of the balloting that began Monday and runs through Wednesday, pro-government media have pushed the message that voting was a patriotic duty to foil foreign plots against Egypt.

But as the election neared, officials have used a mixture of rewards, bullying and cajoling to boost turnout. This concerted drive has been undertaken by regional governors, community leaders, police, schools, clerics and businessmen, according to interviews conducted by journalists.

The election comes amid the harshest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history, with thousands of Islamists and secular activists in jail. It has been dismissed as a sham by opposition leaders and rights groups and a call for a boycott by the opposition was criticised by government supporters as tantamount to treason.

The get-out-the-vote campaign has enlisted all elements of society, from secular to religious.

In Qalyoubiyah province, the local branch of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning, instructed heads of affiliated schools and seminaries to divide staff into three groups to vote on each of the three election days.

Designated leaders must escort the groups to polling stations and "monitor them until their return, when they verify that everyone has a finger stained with phosphoric ink," according to a March 20 memo obtained by journalists.

"Please follow the instructions very carefully out of concern for the nation's interest," it said.

There also have been not-so-subtle threats.

A top official of the street vendors' union in Cairo said he and other board members were told last week by authorities to get their members to vote if they wanted to be spared stepped-up raids and confiscation of goods by police and municipal officials. The official spoke to journalists on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

In several southern provinces, including Assiut, Sohag and Minya, police have been going door to door to urge people to the polls, according to voters and witnesses.

The turnout campaign in southern Egypt followed meetings two weeks ago between local security chiefs and community leaders, including Muslim and Christian clerics, heads of Sufi orders, tribal chiefs and an ultraconservative Islamic party tolerated by the government.

Participants at the meetings assigned specific tasks by geographic location, according to witnesses and voters with first-hand experience of the operation.

Employees at a state-owned water and sanitation company in Cairo said on Tuesday that their manager kept a promise made the previous day to be standing by their punch-in clock and checking their fingers for proof of voting when they reported to work.

"Our manager told us in a threatening tone: 'You are on an election mission. You have to vote if you know what's good for you,'" said employee Mohammed Abdel-Raouf.

An employee of a private contracting company said workers were threatened with disciplinary measures if they could not prove they voted. The employee spoke on condition of that he and his employer not be identified because he feared retaliation.

At some schools, headmasters have threatened to send names of students who didn't vote to authorities.

A video seen on social media networks on Tuesday purported to show an Education Ministry official talking to the staff about cards he had passed out for them to mark with their inky fingerprint after they vote. He tells them that footage has been shot of them receiving the cards, "so, no one turns around and says 'I did not get a card.'"

"These are not my instructions; they are the instructions of the state and its institutions," said the man, who had earlier lectured them on how voting provides support to Egypt against a world that "persecutes" it.

Reports of voting incentives from government officials also have emerged.

The governor of Beheira, a Nile Delta province north of Cairo, told a TV interviewer this week that villages and towns with a high voter-participation rate would be rewarded with improvements in their local water and sanitation services.

Another official, Governor Magdy Hegazy of Aswan province in the south, promised unspecified financial rewards to the district with the highest participation, according to the website of state-run TV.

A March 24 memo from the secretary general of the New Valley province in western Egypt to heads of its town and district councils spelled out funds that would be spent on improving public services to the six localities with the biggest turnout. The top category, for 3,000 votes or more, was for 5 million pounds (about $284,000), according to the memo obtained by journalists.

Aya Kamal, a resident in the Cairo suburb of Matariya, said she was promised extra food rations if she showed proof of voting to a shopkeeper at a state-designated store. She said the plan was being funded by the largest parliamentary coalition, which supports the government.

A charity led by another pro-government lawmaker, Saad el-Gamal, is paying for buses to take voters to the polls in el-Aqwaz, a village about 80 kilometres south of Cairo.

Fatima Abdel-Latif, 66, said she and other villagers were promised 100 pounds ($5.70) each if they go to the charity's office and show their ink-stained fingers.

"We encourage people to vote. That is democracy, isn't it?" said Amr Saad, a civil servant who works for the charity.

It was not immediately clear if all the tactics were working.

Turnout on Tuesday, the second day of voting, was described by the election commission as "heavy" in Cairo, the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and in northern Sinai, epicentre of an insurgency by Islamic militants. It provided no figures.

At a polling station in Cairo's Sixth of October suburb, where about 8,000 voters are registered, judges supervising the balloting said Monday's turnout had been about 14 percent.

One judge said that voters talked of being coerced.

"I have been hearing stories that hurt my ears," he said. "Ministries, government agencies, large supermarkets. ... You see groups coming together and you can ask them and see what brought them."

Across the street, 19-year-old engineering student Salma Mohammed said older Egyptians were pressuring younger ones to vote for Sisi.

"Most of the youth see this as a farce," she said, adding that some of her friends had been unjustly accused of extremism under Sisi's rule. "There are no freedoms, but he also brought security."

Local broadcasters have been showing modest lines of voters across much of the nation, along with some polling places that appeared to be deserted at times.

Reporters who visited polls in the greater Cairo area were told by officials at four centres that turnout was as low as 7 percent on average by about 6 p.m. Monday, three hours before closing.

In Assiut province, the southern region's 13 districts had a turnout by the end of Monday that varied between 17.2 and 11.3 percent, according to an official tally obtained by journalists.    (AP)

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