Cairo — Egyptian voters say they received payments, food and other incentives to go to the polls as authorities sought on Wednesday to achieve the high turnout President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wants to legitimise his all but guaranteed victory.
As voting went into the third and final day, turnout was seen as the critical factor in an election where any contest was eliminated through the arrest or intimidation of the former military commander’s most serious challengers. The president said he wanted more opponents to stand, but instead faced just one who has been dismissed as a dummy candidate.
The election commission has said the vote is free and fair.
Sisi, who led the military overthrow of freely elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in 2013, has promised security and stability and to revive the economy after unrest that followed a 2011 uprising.
Sisi’s main allies include the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In the first two days of voting, turnout was estimated at well below the 47% of the electorate who backed Sisi for the first time in 2014. By Wednesday, authorities appeared desperate to garner a higher percentage.
Voters interviewed by Reuters in the first two days of polling said they had been offered money, boxes of basic food and services to cast their ballots, or to at least ink their fingers to make it look as if they had.
"I’ve never voted before, and I didn’t intend to this time either," a woman in Cairo’s working-class Ward estate said. "I just went and dipped my finger in the paint and took the 50 pounds (R35)," she said. She declined to give her name for fear of reprisals by authorities.
Other women, who also declined to be named, said they had been promised bags of food containing rice and vegetable oil in exchange for votes. "They told me that if I voted and showed them [the ink on] my finger I will get a bag," said one, who also declined to be named.
The women did not say who exactly had given them money or bags of goods.
Managers at a government financial institution gave employees half of Monday off and ordered them to vote, one employee said. Employees were told to "not come back without ink on their fingers" and had their hands inspected the next day, the employee said.
Asked for comment, the presidency spokesman said this was not a matter for the presidency and referred Reuters to the National Election Commission and spokespeople for the presidential campaigns.
Officials at the election commission and the government’s foreign press centre did not immediately respond to calls requesting comment.
Some people needed no inducement to vote.
Noha al-Nemr, voting in Cairo’s middle-class Mohandiseen district, said: "I voted for Sisi, of course, because it’s enough that because of him, my family and I live in safety, even if there’s hardship."
Incentives for voting were made more public in other areas. In Beheira province, governor Nadia Abdou said: "Whichever municipality has the most votes, we will fix their water, sewage and electricity. We will reward those who came out in large numbers."
Pro-government media, meanwhile, portrayed failure to vote as a betrayal of Egypt, the most populous Arab country.
Hosts of state-run radio programmes said if people did not vote, they would be "betraying the blood of the martyrs in Sinai", a reference to a military campaign against Islamist militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula.