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Egypt’s Youth Ignore the Election and Vote With Their Feet

Plagued by unemployment and hoping to leave a stagnant Egypt to work abroad, young people couldn't care less about an election where only one eligible Egyptian in four voted.

by David Enders
Nov 23 2015, 8:50pm

An Egyptian man votes at a school in Cairo, on November 22, 2015. (Photo by Oliver Wieken/EPA)

Voting ended Monday in Egypt's first parliamentary elections since a military coup deposed the elected government more than two years ago, but young people largely stayed away from the polls. Probably fewer than one in four eligible voters showed up at the polls, and there were no international monitors watching over the vote. Many young Egyptians stayed home to express their disgust with a government that has repressed demonstrations brutally.

"I don't want to support this government in any way," said Sami Ibrahim, a 27-year-old radiologist living in Cairo. "I don't want blood on my hands."

Parliamentary elections are held in two stages of two days each in Egypt, and turnout appeared higher on Sunday and Monday than it was during the first round of voting last month. But in many places it is still unlikely to have topped 25 percent, the figure the government gave for the last round, which has been widely ridiculed as inflated.

Related: No One Is Showing Up for Egypt's Election, Including The Party That Won Last Time

"We have had about 1,000 out of 4,000 registered voters here," said Mohammed Meshawi, a judge presiding over a polling station in Ismailiya, a city of about 300,000 on the Suez Canal. "That's the highest turnout for any of the polling stations in Ismailiya," he added, with about six hours to go before the polls closed on Monday.

On Tuesday, a car bomb exploded outside a hotel housing election judges in the country's restive North Sinai province, killing at least four policemen and injuring 12 other people, according to security and medical sources. No group immediately claimed responsibility but the Islamic State-affiliated group, Sinai Province, has carried out similar attacks recently. 

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political offshoot had won the previous election but was disbanded after the 2013 coup, has boycotted the vote. Yet, like many in this country rife with bizarre theories about foreign interference, Meshawi was sure the West was behind the bad turnout, especially among young people.

"It's because the United States is distracting them with Facebook," he said, repeating a popular conspiracy theory that attributed low voter to a foreign plot rather than apathy and the boycott.

Many of the country's youth hope to emigrate, feeling their chance of having a say in a participatory political system is over, and looking for a better standard of living. According to 2013 data from a government statistics agency, a staggering 60 percent of young Egyptians want to emigrate for work.

Unemployment has soared after the 2011 revolution that toppled the regime of president Hosni Mubarak, an uprising that the International Monetary Fund says was motivated largely by economic inequality.

Almost half of Egypt's more than 80 million people are under 25.

Ibrahim is a good example of the disillusionment of many young Egyptians. He may have given up on politics, but until two years ago he was very much engaged in it as a member of the April 6 Movement, which helped organize protests against Mubarak.

In 2012, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president. But now Morsi is sitting in prison, sentenced to death, and the Brotherhood, which was outlawed under Mubarak, is banned once again.

'The government is exploiting the ignorance of the people.'

"We thought when Morsi was elected we had achieved democracy," Ibrahim said. But when Morsi's government itself threatened to deal with demonstrators by force, April 6 organized protests again. Then things got even worse.

"After June 30, all the youth gave up on activism," Ibrahim said.

June 30, 2013, was the date Morsi was deposed by a military coup led by General Abdel Fatteh el Sisi, the country's current leader. "Everyone I know wants to leave. The only ones not trying to leave are the ones [who] are in prison."

Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been arrested by the military in the past four years. Even before the coup, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces served as a sort of caretaker government between Mubarak's fall and the election of a new parliament. After the coup, the arrests accelerated, as did the violent repression of protests, culminating in around 1,000 demonstrators being killed in the space of a few days in August 2013.

Related: If a Plane Crashes in the Desert and the Egyptian Press Doesn't Make a Sound, Did It Really Happen?

There were rumors in Cairo that a gathering would be held Monday in front of the German Embassy as a corollary to the electoral boycott. The intention, stated on social media, was to ask Germany to open immigration to Egyptians. But the crisis hasn't spawned just demand for travel to Europe, legal or undocumented.

Young Egyptians have traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State, as well — even some who had been members of April 6, which styled itself a movement entirely unaffiliated with religion.

"I know two people who were in April 6 before and then joined IS," Ibrahim said. "It was because they had been arrested and tortured."

Ibrahim and others looking for cracks to appear in Sisi's government say they hope that the low turnout might be a sign of the president's popularity flagging. Virtually none of the candidates running for office are willing to voice opposition to Sisi, and many Egyptians liken the situation to the rubber-stamp parliaments that were elected under Mubarak.

Watch the VICE News documentary Egypt Under Sisi:

The parliamentary elections held in 2012, which were contested by an array of political parties and for the first time saw voting based less on patronage than on actual political platforms, garnered a turnout of more than 50 percent.

But continuing street demonstrations that followed the election of Morsi, coupled with widespread suspicion of the ultimate aims of the Muslim Brotherhood, led many older Egyptians to support Sisi's coup. As nearby countries like Libya and Syria descended into chaos and war following their own upheavals, a leader who promised stability gained greater appeal.

But that doesn't mean much to those who have borne the brunt of the new government's repression.

"The youth do not get why the older generation would not support us," Ibrahim said. "The citizens we fought for betrayed us. The government is exploiting the ignorance of the people."

Ibrahim doesn't see a democratic Egypt in his future.

"I know a lot of people," he said, dejected, "who have just forgotten."

Follow David Enders on Twitter: @davidjenders