Egyptian presidential elections underdog Hamdeen Sabbahi achieved the impossible: he came in third in a two-horse race. The 60-year-old leftist politician and sole rival to the country’s ex-army chief Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi secured just under 757,000 votes in the preliminary count as opposed to Sisi’s more than 23 million votes—as well as to the votes of a last-minute unexpected entrant: the spoiled ballot.
According to provisional results, Sisi took over 93 percent of the vote, while Sabbahi won just 3 percent. Turnout, which some had speculated would be as low as a tenth of the eligible voters, was a reputable 46 percent according to interim president Adly Mansour.
But the real story was in the spoiled ballots. Over a million, or around 4 percent, of the voting papers were invalid, the highest number recorded in all of Egypt’s seven elections since the January 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Some of these were, of course, accidental violations, though the Egyptian authorities had even relaxed electoral rules and allowed voters to draw hearts or write “I love you” on their ballots, provided that they ticked a box. In past polls, any excess writing on a ballot would have made it invalid.
The numbers of spoiled ballots this year was high enough not only to beat Sabbahi, but to defeat an organized campaign calling for such ballots in the 2012 elections that voted in Mohamed Morsi.
Two years ago activists, frustrated by a runoff between Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, called on Egyptians to invalidate their votes. In the end 843,252, or 3 percent, of the ballots were spoiled (a rise from the usual 1 per cent)—considerably less than this year’s spontaneous dissent.
Photos of the 2014 ballot scribbles, which ranged from demands to free jailed activists to satirical endorsements of celebrities for president, revealed an irreverence from the public that had been drowned out by nationalist sentiment in the election’s buildup.
The world knew that Sisi, viewed as a hero by the public after he ousted the unpopular Morsi last July, would win in a landslide victory. But it appeared that Sisi’s $1.6 million advertising drive that left little public space unadorned with one of his posters, coupled with a relentless campaign by local media to vote, might have backfired for both contenders.
In the first two days, the government was so fearful of a low turnout that it threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process and Sisi’s inevitable win by declaring a national holiday to facilitate voting; vowing to fine abstentions; and bending electoral law to extend the elections by a day. Meanwhile the country’s popular pro-regime television presenters were ridiculed on social media for using their shows to beg the public to go and cast their vote.
But it seems that hundreds of thousands of citizens would not go quietly to the ballot boxes. And the language of the spoiled voting papers showed that not all were authored by pro-Morsi Islamists.
Circulated widely on social media, one voting paper read “I don’t give a f---,” and another, “For my beloved leader Mubarak.” One voter drew an additional box and voted for Arya Stark, a character in the U.S. television series Game of Thrones. Another citizen called for the release of jailed secular Alexandrian activist Mahienour el-Masry.
Sabbahi’s campaign, which never imagined it could beat Sisi, was hoping for a respectable result of around 15 percent; instead, the biggest block of opposition couldn’t be bothered to listen to him, said H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
While some of Egypt’s main secular political groups like the Constitution Party came out in support of Sabbahi shortly after he announced his presidential bid, “the results are bad for these parties,” said Hellyer. “They show that the [parties] didn’t have quite the handle on what is going on that they thought they did. Their candidate came not just second to Sisi...but third to spoiled ballots.”
Many had questioned Sabbahi’s decision to run in, and so give credence to, a poll labelled a foregone conclusion and “farce” by both Islamist and secular dissidents. They asked how a self-proclaimed revolutionary candidate could participate in an election from which the country’s largest political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was excluded and that came amid a 10-month crackdown on Sisi’s opponents.
At a boisterous rally in Alexandria a week before the polls, Sabbahi, who boasted that he been jailed 17 times for his political opinions under Presidents Sadat and Mubarak, told me that his decision to run was the only way to guarantee democratic progress in Egypt.
“We will force the state toward a freedom that wasn’t practiced before, and this will be the basis of more democracy in the future,” he said.
Sabbahi put in a vigorous effort to bring about this “freedom.” While Sisi did not attend rallies in person for security reasons or offer a comprehensive written manifesto, Sabbahi battled through crowds of supporters in campaign trips around the country and released a detailed 130-page electoral program. Subsidies on food and fuel for the rich would be scrapped, tax rates currently set at 20 percent would range from 20 to 40 percent, solar power was to be invested in. Even some critics were impressed by his projects.
But extension of the voting deadline into a third day—an attempt by the state to bolster numbers for Sisi—damaged the credibility of the whole process. “It may be true that 46 percent voted, but no one is going to believe that now,” Hellyer said.
Revolutionary movements boycotting the vote once again demanded that Sabbahi stand down. Instead, he pulled his observation teams out of the polling stations after 14 of them were arrested and stayed put. He was criticized for this action by groups opposing Sisi’s presidential bid, but was heralded as a hero by the military leader’s supporters for “saving” the elections.
Ahmed el-Enany, a member of Sabbahi’s political office, told me, “We have to win or lose but not withdraw from the elections. Withdrawing is dangerous for us, the country, and the people,” he said. “Withdrawing would give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to stress their position and allegations that June 30 was a coup.”
But U.S.-based Democracy International, one of six approved foreign observer missions, pointed to the vote extension as an indication of the repressive political environment that made a democratic election “impossible.” The organization, which posted 86 employees to oversee the country’s polling stations, called on the Egyptian government to take immediate action to end political exclusiveness and intimidation that undermined the process.
Sabbahi’s next plan is to focus on winning a majority in the upcoming parliament. But the long-term damage to Sabbahi’s popularity for his participation in the most inevitable of elections remains to be seen. Some now see him as a cog in the electoral machine that brought Egypt yet another military president.