In The Middle East, Two Elections, Zero Change

Egyptian policemen wait for voters at a polling center on Tuesday in Cairo CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NARIMAN EL-MOFTY
Egyptian policemen wait for voters at a polling center on Tuesday in Cairo CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NARIMAN EL-MOFTY

The results of elections in both Syria and Egypt are a foregone conclusion. International observers and locals alike predict that Syria’s incumbent president Bashar al-Assad will be elected to a third term in office while former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will come out on top in Egypt. But critics claim neither election is free and fair, and neither seem likely to lead to substantive change within the region.

Empty Polls in Egypt

In Egypt, officials of the interim government announced Tuesday night that elections would be extended through Wednesday, after spontaneously declaring Tuesday a national holiday. While the interim government claims to have no affiliations with Sisi, opponents of the general view the declaration of an extension as a sign that widespread support is not materializing.

In an interview with Reuters, Sisi underscored the importance of high voter turnout: “We need in the coming elections a greater number than those who voted in the constitution.” Sisi even predicted that 40 million out of a total population of 54 million Egyptian voters would flood the polls. However, members of the election committee have reported that turnout has stalled at 39 percent: a marked decrease from Egypt’s last presidential run-off, in 2012, that had a turnout of nearly 52 percent. Independent observers have estimated turnout at as low as 20 percent. This is despite the current government threatening to fine all non-voters 500 Egyptian pounds ($69 USD).

Abstention from voting is a result of disillusionment with the interim government that came to power after the military, led by Sisi, toppled President Mohamed Morsi last July. The last year has been the bloodiest in Egypt’s recent history, with nearly one thousand Brotherhood supporters being killed during protests while several hundred members of the security forces have also been killed by Islamists since last July. Sisi, who left the army in March to run for president, faces the dilemma of heightened security threats, a polarized political climate, and impending bankruptcy, but has yet to provide the specifics for Egypt’s recovery, which he says can be accomplished in two years.

The prospects for an inclusive political environment in Egypt have also dimmed in the past year as the military has cracked down on demonstrators and restricted basic freedoms of speech and assembly. In Islamist strongholds such as Alexandria and Fayoum, which have borne the brunt of the government crackdown, many appear to have heeded the Muslim Brotherhood’s call to boycott the elections, who argued the balloting is unfair. The residents of Fayoum who did vote expressed little enthusiasm for either Sisi, seen as a reincarnation of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, or Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist candidate who tried and failed to capture the youth vote, instead voting merely to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood. The majority of the pro-democracy youths who protested to remove Mubarak from power in 2011 were also absent from the polls. Whether Sisi proves able to foster widespread political participation remains to be seen, but the low turnout is not encouraging.

Manipulation and Fear in Syria Votes

Unlike in Egypt, Syrians are turning out in droves in attempt to have a say in the leadership of their country. In Lebanon, which is home to over one million Syrian refugees and expats, roads around Beirut were congested this morning as voters flocked to cast their ballots, in what the Washington Post’s Liz Sly described as a “powerful affirmation” of incumbent President Assad and his regime.

Virtually all observers predict Assad will win, assuring him a third term in office. Over the past three years, Syria has been torn apart by a devastating civil war as a loose coalition of opposition forces has fought to oust Assad from power. According to U.S. estimates, 162,000 Syrians have died and nearly 3 million have become refugees while human rights violations have piled up on both sides. In the past year, government forces have made serious headway while the opposition has devolved into infighting and lost ground.

However, some refugees displaced by violence in Syria reported intimidation by pro-Assad forces active in Lebanon, such as Hezbollah, and others voted in fear that, without supporting Assad, they might be denied reentry into Syria. In Amman, Jordan, Syrian refugees met outside their embassy to protest the elections, voicing the opposition’s view that elections will not produce valid results because only the regions of Syria under government control will be able to vote.

The international community has also condemned the elections as farcical, given their easily predictable outcome. “Elections organized by the Assad regime would be a parody of democracy, would reveal the regime’s rejection of the basis of the Geneva talks, and would deepen the division of Syria,” the 11-member Friends of Syria group, which includes the United States and several other allies, said in a statement last month. Syria’s election has also been seen as a total rejection of the proposed transition government that has been the basis for peace negotiations between the government and opposition.

The biggest factor undermining the legitimacy of the election remains the lack of formidable opposition to President Assad. Although the election marks Syria’s first multiparty contest for leadership in nearly 50 years, candidates running against Assad required the endorsement of 35 MPs in the current parliament, effectively barring opposition figures from running. The combined effects of ongoing war, abstention by some refugees, and lack of a credible opposition mean there’s almost no chance that the result in Syria is anything but maintenance of the status quo.