Egypt's Presidential Voting Comes During Crackdown On Dissent

Egyptians are at the polls again Tuesday for the final day of the presidential elections. And the outcome seems pretty predictable, ex-military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will be the next president.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Egyptians are at the polls again today, at least those who are voting in a presidential election that is considered predictable. Former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to be Egypt's next President. NPR's Leila Fadel is covering Egypt's election from Cairo. Hi, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: So how are the elections going?

FADEL: Well, so far, like you said, it's all been pretty predictable, actually quite boring. People saying the same things at every polling station, the people that are there, that they're going to vote for Sisi, that he's the savior of Egypt. But it's clear that the government is pretty worried about turnout because they declared today a national holiday. The private channels that support Sisi are basically yelling at citizens to go out to the polls - some equating not voting to treason. So there's a clear concern that there won't be a huge turnout to ringingly endorse Sisi as President.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember we've got two days of voting here. There are two candidates - two candidates were allowed. You profiled the challenger here on MORNING EDITION, Leila, but he's not given really any chance at all. So is the big question here simply how many votes Sisi is able to pile up?

FADEL: Yeah, this is the first real test of Sisi's popularity. It's been said here that he is hugely popular, that he will unify Egypt. But a recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows that only 54 percent of Egyptians view Sisi favorably. So he's really concerned and the authorities are concerned that Egyptians won't come out en masse and vote for him.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should mention 54 percent approval rating is actually not that bad for an American politician. But you're saying that the Egyptian government is concerned because there's been virtually no opposition allowed, and their worried that other 46 percent or more won't even show up. Is that right?

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, there's a huge and strong minority that is boycotting this vote, that are sitting at home not ready to participate. We spoke to Issandr El Amrani, the head of the International Crisis Group's North Africa project about this.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: We were dealing with such fundamentally opposed views of what the election is about and such polarization in Egyptian society. So yes, turnout figures do indicate to some degree the extent of buy-in in the wider population today.

INSKEEP: Leila Fadel, I don't mean to be flip here, but is there a fair population of the Egyptian electorate that is actually in prison or fearful of it right now?

FADEL: Of course. I mean, this is a place where now free assembly is not possible. There's a law that bans you from gathering in 10 or more people at a time. Unless of course you're outside of a polling station dancing. That's OK. But we've seen thousands and thousands of people jailed because they protest, from human rights lawyers to Islamists to long-term youth activists, journalists - they're all in jail. And so it isn't that maybe the process will be completely unfair. It's that it's going on in a political atmosphere where dissent is not acceptable.

INSKEEP: You said dancing was OK. Are people actually dancing?

FADEL: In the city, in Cairo, we did see some dancing outside polling stations, people singing about God, country and army. There are some people extremely happy about this, maybe a majority of Egyptians. But then there's also this strong minority of dissent. I visited a town right outside of Cairo called Kerdasa, a very restive town, a very defiant town. The polling stations were empty there. They were also on the outskirts of town. And right as we're walking into the polling station, you see the words on the wall, boycott the killers. We spoke to people in the town who said we're pretty much all boycotting because they're arresting and killing people every day, the people that are about to be elected.

INSKEEP: Any fear of fraud by the government to ensure a satisfactory result?

FADEL: There isn't really concern about mass rigging. The military here is a hugely popular institution and an institution that Sisi once led. The bigger concern, observers say, is the political atmosphere that we were talking about. We spoke to the president of Democracy International, Eric Bjornlund, about that.

ERIC BJORNLUND: There've been issues with respect to peaceful protest and to political organizing and to the ability for certain groups to operate legally in the country. So we remain concerned about that political climate that the election's taking place in.

FADEL: So basically, the bigger issue is, are you giving mandate to a sham election, even if it's not being rigged here?

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. Leila, thanks.

FADEL: Thank you.

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