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CAIRO – Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's victory in last week's election was never in doubt, but the vote produced a surprise runner-up — an unusually large number of invalid ballots, suggesting a possible protest vote against el-Sissi or the election itself.
Official figures released Monday by the election commission gave el-Sissi 97 percent of the vote, securing him a second, four-year term in office following an election in which he ran virtually unopposed. His sole challenger, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who made no effort to challenge him, received 656,534 votes, or 2.92 percent.
Moussa's tally was outdone by the 1.76 million invalid ballots, which would have amounted to 7.27 percent of votes cast, a considerably higher percentage than in the last two presidential elections: 4.07 percent in 2014 and 3.1 percent in the 2012 runoff.
Critics denounced the latest election as a farce because a string of potentially serious challengers were either forced out of the race or arrested. Moussa stepped in the last minute to spare the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election that would have resembled the referendums long held by the region's autocrats.
Authorities went to great lengths to encourage turnout, hoping to lend the vote credibility. In the end, turnout was 41.05 percent, down from 47.45 percent when el-Sissi won his first election in 2014.
It's impossible to know how many voters deliberately spoiled their ballots. But some may have bristled at the lack of competition, or the election commission's threat to impose a fine on anyone who boycotted the vote, under a law that has been rarely enforced.
"I had made up my mind not to vote, but I went to the polls at the last minute when they threatened to make us pay 500 pounds ($28) if we don't," said Mohammed Mustafa, an unemployed, 26-year-old university graduate from Cairo. "I invalidated my vote because it was not really an election. El-Sissi knew he was going to win before it began."
Imad Hussein, the editor of the Al-Shorouk newspaper and an el-Sissi supporter, said the president's campaign should "quietly and thoroughly" study the significance of the spoiled ballots.
"Those invalidators have sent a message that must be read and answered. We can say that we now have in Egypt a party called the 'invalidators,' who receive more votes than the leaders of existing political parties."
Invalidating votes may have been seen as a relatively safe way to protest el-Sissi, who has waged a sweeping crackdown on dissent and banned all unauthorized demonstrations. A string of potentially serious candidates were arrested or withdrew from the race, citing intimidation. A coalition of eight Egyptian opposition parties and some 150 pro-democracy public figures had called for a boycott of the vote, calling it an "absurdity" befitting "old and crude dictatorships."
After the 2012 and 2014 elections, images circulated on social media showing deliberately spoiled ballots. One voter penciled in the words "My vote is for you, Batman," while another wrote in the name of a famous belly dancer. Another voter simply wrote, "I love you, Sara, very much." After this year's election, an image circulated of a write-in vote for Liverpool's Egyptian star striker Mohammed Salah, a hometown celebrity.
Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York-based Century Foundation, said one would have expected people to register their disapproval by staying home. "But the key factor is that many people, such as government employees, were effectively coerced into voting. As such, spoiling ballots represents the only means for expressing dissent or opposition," he said.
Ahmed Abd Rabou, an Egyptian political scientist currently teaching at the University of Denver, said the invalidated votes were "a rejection of the election's lack of competition, which is the banner headline of this vote."
Cairo pharmacist Khaled el-Fiqy, who is in his mid-50s, had hoped a high number of invalid ballots would send a message.
"I wanted to participate in the election because I care about Egypt's future," he said. "But I invalidated my ballot because, although I support el-Sissi, I wanted to bolster the number of invalid votes so he gets the message that there are things we are unhappy about." He cited the poor state of public education as an example.
El-Sissi has won international praise for enacting long overdue economic reforms, like slashing subsidies of basic goods and allowing the currency to float. But the reforms sent prices soaring, adding to the hardships endured by Egypt's poor and middle class. He has touted a number of megaprojects aimed at rebuilding and expanding the country's infrastructure, but their effects have yet to be felt by most Egyptians.
Dandrawy el-Hawary, who strongly supports el-Sissi, offered a different explanation for the invalid ballots, saying they reflected Egyptians' excessive love for their leader.
Local media, which is dominated by pro-government commentators, portrayed voting as a national obligation and any criticism of the election as part of a foreign plot to undermine stability. Echoing the official line, el-Hawary speculated that some voters had unintentionally spoiled their ballots by writing "We love you, el-Sissi" or "We are behind you" on them.
"They did not help their favorite candidate by increasing the number of votes he won, but in fact raised the number of invalid votes, which traitors at home and abroad are trying to use to attack President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi."
Associated Press writer Menna Zaki contributed to this report.