CAIRO — Egypt’s National Elections Commission (NEC) is currently compiling a list of names of individuals who did not vote in the March 2018 presidential elections. The list will be submitted to the public prosecutor's office and those on it will face a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds ($28).
“In both cases, the government is a winner. When voters take part in the elections and the turnout is high, the elections are deemed honorable. When people abstain from participating in the elections, then the government steps in and imposes a fine,” Abdul Rahman Sayed, an accountant, told Al-Monitor.
While more than 24,250,000 voters took part in the elections in March, in which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was re-elected for a second presidential term, 34,823,986 Egyptians eligible to vote did not.
In the early hours of March 28, which was the last day of the elections, the NEC threatened to impose fines on those who were planning to stay home in a bid to motivate the citizens to participate.
The commission said in a statement issued on that day that Article 43 of Law No. 22 of 2014 would be enforced. The law stipulates that “a fine not exceeding 500 Egyptian pounds shall be imposed on voters who unjustifiably fail to participate in the presidential elections.”
The NEC called on all citizens who are eligible to vote and who had not yet cast a ballot at the time of issuance of the statement to participate and express their free will in a bid to “complete the democratic process the country was witnessing."
Sayed added, “Just like free education and freedom of opinion and expression, participating in the elections is a constitutional right. It is not a duty such as paying taxes or performing military service. If I do not want to complete my free education, I do not get punished. So why would I get punished for not participating in the elections?”
Although many Egyptians believe that participation in the elections is a right, Shawki al-Sayed, a legal expert and former member of parliament’s now-defunct Shura Council, told Al-Monitor that the 2014 Egyptian Constitution addresses the matter with clarity.
“According to the first phrase of Article 87 of the 2014 constitution, participation in the elections — meaning showing up to a polling station and casting a ballot — is a duty. Article 87 states that the participation of citizens in public life is a national duty and that performance of such a duty may be exempted in cases specified by the law. These include travel and sickness,” he said.
He pointed out that based on the same article of the constitution, however, electing a particular candidate is a right, meaning that citizens are not forced to choose a particular candidate and can cast a blank vote for instance. The article states that every citizen has the right to vote, to run in the elections and to express their opinion in referendums and that the law shall regulate the exercise of these rights.
Ramy Shukry, a driver who works for the intelligent transportation systems, told Al-Monitor that the state has imposed the fine in a bid to increase its economic revenues at the expense of the citizens. In light of the economic crisis it is facing, the state is looking to increase its revenues. However, he added, the government is overlooking the citizens’ resources, which have been so depleted by the crisis that many citizens cannot even afford such a fine.
Wael al-Nahhas, an economic expert and financial adviser to a number of investment institutions such as UniCap Investment, concurred, telling Al-Monitor that the state mainly took its decision based on economic considerations. He said that if the purpose of the fine had been to enforce the law, then the government would have enforced the law in March, not six months after the elections. Also, he said, if the state’s purpose was to encourage citizens to participate in the elections, then the government would have waited until the 2022 elections to impose this fine.
He explained that huge challenges lie ahead of the state budget in the fiscal year 2019 in light of the International Monetary Funds' budget deficit reduction calls. He added that there is the accumulated debt that the state repays on an annual basis to a number of countries and entities. Add to this the huge hike in oil prices witnessed over the past few months. This has made it more expensive for Egypt to import oil, he noted.
Nahhas pointed out that the total fines expected to be collected amount to 17.412 billion Egyptian pounds ($971.8 million), accounting for about 4% of the budget deficit, which amounts to 438.6 billion pounds ($24.5 billion).
Seham Hosny, a schoolteacher, voiced a different opinion. She told Al-Monitor that the state would prefer citizens to take part in the elections instead of imposing fines on them. She said that the low electoral turnout has embarrassed Egypt in front of the world. Many countries used the low turnout as a pretext to question the democracy of the elections and the human rights situation in Egypt.
Yusri al-Azbawi, a political researcher specializing in electoral systems at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, partly agreed with Hosny. He told Al-Monitor that there was no way the state was relying on fines to improve its economic situation because these fines cannot be easily collected.
“Anyone can appeal the fine and provide proof that they had valid reasons not to take part in the elections, such as living in a governorate that is located far away from the polling station, having been at work or ill. Such proof can easily be falsified,” Azbawi said.
He added that it is impossible for the public prosecutor's office to impose fines on millions of citizens who have failed to participate in the elections. The government can only collect such fines when citizens ask for an official document from governmental institutions such as an identity card or a driver's license. Citizens who come to collect an identity card or any other official document would be forced to pay the fine.
In other words, he said, it may take some citizens several years to pay such fines, which infers that the state will by no means be able to reduce part of this year’s budget deficit.
Azbawi stressed that the goal of the fine is to enforce the law and encourage the largest number of citizens to vote. He said that this is a very common procedure adopted by many countries — such as Peru, Argentina, Australia, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Singapore and Uruguay — that do not suffer economic crises and do not need to use fines to decrease their budget deficit.
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