CAIRO — Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army field marshal who led last summer’s military takeover in Egypt, won election as president with over 90 percent of the vote, according to preliminary tallies Wednesday. But it was the reported turnout that caught some by surprise.
Officials said nearly 40 percent of the electorate had cast ballots, an unexpectedly strong showing after days of escalating panic in the government and the news media over the lack of voters at the polls.
Supporters of Sissi had counted on a respectable turnout to legitimize his assumption of power after the ouster last summer of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s first fairly elected leader. But Sissi’s critics say the vote was so marred by irregularities that its outcome, including the turnout, was all but meaningless — except perhaps as the sign of a return to the era when strongmen like Hosni Mubarak won similarly predictable landslides.
Sissi’s victory was never in doubt. A severely unbalanced and tightly restricted political process all but guaranteed it, driving away all but one opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi.
Yet when Egyptians failed to show up in significant numbers for the scheduled two-day election on Monday and Tuesday, the military-backed government showed signs of desperation in its efforts to urge more people to the polls. Finally, as the scheduled two-day vote was about to end Tuesday night, election officials took the extraordinary step of adding a third day to the voting.
The ultimate total was impossible to confirm independently. Sabahi abruptly withdrew all his monitors from the polls over the previous night, complaining that many were arrested or assaulted by the police for attempting to keep an eye on the ballots. Their pullout removed the last significant check on potential ballot stuffing.
Around the same time, the website of the flagship state newspaper abruptly shifted to reporting “heavy turnout” in its banner headline even as private newspapers continued to report the opposite.
“The state searches for a vote,” Al Masry Al Youm, a privately owned newspaper broadly supportive of Sissi, declared in its headline.
“The ballot boxes searching for voters,” declared Al Shorouk, another private paper sympathetic to Sissi.
In the promilitary newspaper Al Watan, an editorial faulted Sissi’s campaign organizers for the low turnout — accusing them of managing to bungle a race that was almost impossible to lose. “Today, it seems clear to all the Egyptian people that the Sisi campaign is the biggest failure in the history of the presidential elections,” the editorial declared. “They were arrogant and condescending toward the people, and they did not make any effort to mobilize voters, especially the youth.”
When a state television anchor indicated Wednesday morning that a sudden “influx” of voters had pushed turnout in three provinces as high as 50 percent, Naguib Gebrael, a lawyer backing Sissi, brusquely contradicted her. “We can’t fool the people anymore now,” he said. “What influx?”
The Sabahi campaign charged in a statement Wednesday that the additional day of voting could serve no other purpose except “to interfere in the numbers and turnout.”
The campaign said it had seen “a clear increase in the magnitude of the electoral violations,” including security forces excluding, expelling, assaulting or arresting Sabahi’s election monitors.
Fourteen of its workers, the campaign said, were temporarily detained Tuesday evening as they left an organizing meeting — apparently accused of holding their gathering in violation of new restrictions intended to deter public protests.