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Elections in Syria and Egypt — similarities and differences

Jun 04,2014 - Last updated at Jun 04,2014

The Egyptian and Syrian presidential elections have a few things in common. In both the result was the same.

In Egypt, the favourite, former army chief Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, and in Syria incumbent Bashar Assad were expected to win by a landslide and both did.

The two candidates enjoyed the support of the state apparatus: military, administration, judiciary, national media, influential individuals and established political parties.

Therefore, voting was free but not fair in either country.

The rivals could not compete and knew this when declaring their candidacies.

Both Sisi and Assad enjoyed popularity: many Egyptians were gripped by “Sisi mania” in the expectation that he will restore security to the country, while Syrians adopted a more measured approach, arguing that Assad is the right man for ending the war of attrition being waged by armed groups with external backing.

Many Syrians say, however, that once Assad fulfills this task, there should be fully democratic elections to usher in a new sort of political system.

At this point, differences emerge.

Egyptians have suspended democracy until Sisi can bring an end to violence and instability, while Syrians argue that this election, the first ever multi-candidate popular consultation in their country, marks the first small step on the road to democracy.

Many Syrians voted for the first time in this election precisely because there were three candidates standing and they could chose among them, rather than simply vote “yes” or “no” for an individual.

The Egyptians claimed that 46 per cent of the electorate voted, but polling stations in the country’s largest cities were not overwhelmed with voters, as was the case during the parliamentary election of 2012 when turnout was said to be 46 per cent.

In Syria it was difficult to estimate turn-out because in Damascus, where I visited half a dozen polling stations, there were many places people could vote in each neighbourhood, so there were no long lines and casting ballots did not take long.

Overall, in Damascus there were 1,500 polling stations and 9,000 in all the government-held areas.

Another important difference was that Egyptians had to vote in their home areas.

Therefore, those residing and working elsewhere were disenfranchised.

Syrians could vote anywhere by presenting their identity cards.

The Syrian election could not have been held otherwise because nine million Syrians have been driven from their homes by war: one-third of this number has fled the country while two-thirds are internally displaced.

They voted in large numbers at polling stations I visited. Furthermore, thousands of Syrians who had fled to Lebanon were given 24 hours to cross back into Syria and vote without losing residency in Lebanon.

Therefore, in Syria voters included not only internally displaced but also refugees, 80,000 to 100,000 of whom voted last week in Beirut at the embassy.

It is estimated that 85 per cent of Syrians live in government-controlled areas, as millions fled insurgent-held locations due to fighting and to the harsh rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (“Daesh”) and other fundamentalist factions.

The moods were completely different.

Egyptian women gripped by “Sisi mania” ululated and sang at polling stations while men cheered and snapped each other with their mobile phones.

The genders were divided at polling stations, or voted at separate stations.

In Syria voters were purposeful. Men and women went to the same polling stations and, in all but one I visited, did not form separate lines for men and women.

At the one polling station where this happened, my bold and bossy driver told the voters to organise themselves into lines so we could get through to observe the voting.

Egyptians were generally reluctant to give their full names to journalists covering the election, while Syrians at polling stations were often happy to do so.

The two elections are due to be followed by the appointment of new governments, which the populace wants to tackle insecurity and corruption, and initiate reforms.

This will take time in both countries, and particularly in Egypt where the threat to the state posed by insurgents is far less than in Syria.

However, procrastination could give rise to discontent, which could lead frustrated youngsters to join radical jihadist groups.

It is rumoured that a “Free Egyptian Army” is already being recruited in Libya with the aim of fighting the Sisi regime.

Sisi has no clear programme for dealing with Egypt’s huge problems while Assad has to provide both “guns and butter”, arms for the soldiers and food for the population, as well as make plans for the future.

He will be given more leeway than Sisi because Syria faces a full-blown conflict.

Reforms will not come soon, but will become mandatory once Damascus calls for funds for reconstruction and for investment. The view here is that Assad’s opponents will have to accept “power sharing” rather than continue to push for a transitional authority with full powers that would take over from him. This will not happen.

A Syrian commentator said he hoped that Syrians opposed to Assad would cease their campaign to topple him because, “being Syrians they do not want to see their country further damaged”.

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