CAIRO (AP) — Nearly a year after he ousted Egypt's first freely elected president, former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was elected president by a landslide of 92 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results released by his campaign Thursday. But questions over the authorities' drive to boost turnout threatened to stain his victory.
New details emerged of a frantic government effort to get officials, town mayors and prominent families in southern provinces where voting was low to push up turnout during the three-day election amid a boycott by el-Sissi's Islamist foes.
After a weak first day of polling on Monday, the prime minister held a video conference with governors and senior security and military chiefs in several of Egypt's provinces, telling them to get out voters, according to three officials with knowledge of the call. Tuesday saw a flurry of free buses to polling stations in those areas.
"People must get out. This will not do," Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said in the call, according to one of the officials, who participated in the conference. The three spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the incident.
El-Sissi's victory was never in doubt, but the career infantry officer had pushed for a massive turnout as well to bestow legitimacy on his ouster last July of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the ensuing crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters.
To ensure that happened, authorities declared the second day of voting a public holiday to free people to vote and threatened to enforce fines on those who did not cast ballots. Then they took the extraordinary step of adding a third day to the election and gave free train and bus rides across the country to allow voters to cast ballots in home districts.
A member of el-Sissi's campaign told the AP that the threat of fines of $70, a hefty sum to most Egyptians, was particularly effective, causing a spike in voting Tuesday evening. But he said the third day of voting was thin and adding an extra day — a decision the campaign itself publicly objected to — did little to help. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign's internal research.
Interim President Adly Mansour, installed by el-Sissi last July, said Thursday that turnout was 46 percent, proclaiming it showed "a broad consensus." But the victor's sole rival in the race, left-wing politician Hamdeen Sabahi, said the figure was not credible and amounted to an "insult to the intelligence of Egyptians."
That figure was lower than the 52 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential election that vaulted Morsi to power. It also was lower than the bar el-Sissi himself set in his last campaign interview, when he said he wanted three-quarters of the country's 54 million registered voters to cast ballots so he could "show the world" his support.
Still, el-Sissi can genuinely claim he comes into office with an impressive tally of 23.38 million votes — significantly more than the 13 million won by Morsi two years ago. The results came from el-Sissi's campaign, citing its own representatives from the polls. There was no official announcement from the election commission, but in past elections such tallies from campaign representatives have proven generally accurate.
Sabahi, who received a meager 2.9 percent of the vote, conceded defeat at a news conference Thursday. He complained of a climate of bias by the media and the government in favor of his rival. He said many of his representatives at polling centers were intimidated, assaulted or arrested, prompting him to pull them out Wednesday in protest.
"I respect the choice of the people," he said. "We have lost an election but we won our self-respect ... I hope we won credibility with the aware and intelligent masses." Figures showed that turnout nationwide on Monday was an alarming 15 percent and weakest in several southern provinces, where Islamists have strong influence, the three officials, who included security officials, told AP.
That sparked an urgent conference call among governors and security officials Monday night, followed by the video conference with Prime Minister Mahlab the next morning, said the officials, who were all familiar with the proceedings.
The call prompted last-minute negotiations with rural notables, village mayors and clan chiefs to see what could be done, the officials said. Many of those figures were once members of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, experienced in getting out the vote during his 29-year autocratic rule, the officials said. They bused voters by the hundreds to the polls in the rural south.
Some refused, complaining of a recent court ruling barring former NDP members from running for future parliament elections, the officials said. Also, the government approached the Coptic Christian patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, in person to help, the officials said.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population and mostly support el-Sissi, were not voting in the high numbers which had been expected, partly because they feared retaliation by Islamists in their southern strongholds and because of the perception that el-Sissi was going to win anyway, according to the officials.
During the day Tuesday, Tawadros gave a televised statement calling on people to vote. Security forces provided armed escorts to Christian voters in towns and villages where they are a sizable community, mostly south of Cairo.
The turnout push raised some reservations from international observers of the vote. Mario David, the head of the European Union observer mission, said the election was carried out within the boundaries of the law, with only minor violations like campaigning near polling centers.
But a senior member of the mission, Robert Goebbels, noted that "high turnout is not necessarily proof of democratic elections." He added that turnout in totalitarian states like North Korea in which there is only a single candidate has run as high as 99.9 percent.