Egyptians have been bribed with food parcels and vouchers at polling stations in a bid to encourage voters to take part in the country's constitutional referendum on measures that would allow President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to stay in power until 2030.
Photos on social media showed Egyptians receiving food boxes, with witnesses stating that campaigners distributed the food to citizens after showing their ink-dyed fingers to show that they had voted. A Reuters' reporter also saw some voters receiving vouchers for groceries after leaving a central Cairo polling station, which they then exchanged for packages of cooking oil, pasta, sugar and tea at a nearby charity.
Some voters were also driven to polling stations; sources in the ministries of electricity and education said that their respective departments in the provinces of Minya and Qalubyia had hired tourist buses to transport voters, including "hundreds of teachers".
There have also been reports that some people were paid or coerced into going to the polls. Videos shared online showed polling staff forcing residents to enter and vote, despite many being en route elsewhere.
Wow, they actually force people to get out of the vehicle to vote. The passengers protest with "I've got errands to run" and "we have three days to vote anyway" and "What difference will our vote make?". All to no avail it seems. https://t.co/HJPHuNK325
— Amro Ali (@_amroali) April 20, 2019
The referendum, the country's third since 2011, was called last week after Egypt's 596-member parliament endorsed the draft amendments by 531 to 22.
If approved, the amendments would extend Al-Sisi's current term to six years from four and allow him to run again for a third six-year term in 2024. They would also grant the president control over appointing head judges and the public prosecutor from a pool of candidates, and give Egypt's powerful military the role of protecting "the constitution and democracy".
Many have criticised the provision of food as an incentive to persuade residents to vote for in favour Al-Sisi. Media reports have been dominated by the alleged success of the Egyptian strongman so far, focusing on mega-projects, such as a new capital city outside Cairo, which he says will create jobs and economic growth.
Shopkeepers and restaurant owners across Cairo told reporters that they had been forced to hang banners urging a "yes" vote in the referendum by security officials
Earlier today, MPs denied that any distribution had been organised by the government, instead crediting it to independent organisations that wanted to encourage voter participation. MP Saeed Hasassien told journalists that the reports had been circulated by "haters of Egypt".
"I am now at my constituency in Keradasa district, I can tell that there is a very unexpected high turnout of people in front of the polling station and there are no cartons here," Hasassien said.
Egyptian television host Amr Adeeb, who is known to be a strong support of the government, further claimed that opposing groups had in fact been paying individuals to vote "No" at the ballot box.
Egyptians have been feeling the pinch of austerity measures implemented as part of Cairo's Egypt's commitment to economic reforms stipulated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in accordance with the country's loan agreement.
The prices of basic food items, water and fuel have soared in recent years after state subsidies were cut and VAT was introduced in the country for the first time. Inflation has also risen after the government floated the Egyptian pound in 2016, and last year, the treasury announced that it was planning to increase public tax revenues by 131 per cent by 2022.