Tarek El-Tablawy, Mariam Fam and Salma El Wardany
Bloomberg News

Former Egyptian army chief Abdel- Fattah El-Sisi won a landslide victory in a presidential race that exposed the depth of the divisions that have mired his nation in unrest for three years.

El-Sisi, who ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July, won 93 percent of the votes, compared with 2.9 percent for former lawmaker Hamdeen Sabahi, his campaign said in a statement carried by state-run media. Turnout in the election, which was shunned by Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood backers, was about 46 percent, according to interim President Adly Mansour. The official tally in the balloting, which was extended a third day to boost turnout, will be released by June 5.

Sabahi, in a televised news conference, conceded defeat, saying “we have provided a choice for a people who are capable of making a choice. Now, the moment has come to tell our great people that I respect their choice and acknowledge my defeat.”

While El-Sisi’s overwhelming win came as little surprise, the number of Egyptians who voted fell short of the popular mandate he sought. The Muslim Brotherhood and other critics of the military say El-Sisi removed Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian leader, in a coup and wasn’t carrying out the will of the people after days of mass protests as he maintains. El-Sisi also faces the task of reviving an economy growing at its slowest in two decades and a nation quick to hit the streets to press for change.

’Bestow Credibility’

“You wanted it, and we handed it to you,” said Ali Nasser, 34, breaking away from a pack of El-Sisi supporters dancing in the street in Cairo’s Nasr City district. “Now, let’s see what you’re going to do.” In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, fireworks lit the sky and drivers honked horns in celebration.

Sabahi said while he can’t “bestow credibility” on the figures announced, he didn’t believe “the violations have made a grave impact on the result.” The number of voided votes, according to the tally provided by El-Sisi’s campaign, exceeded the number of votes Sabahi won.

About 25 million Egyptians voted, Mansour said, among about 54 million who were eligible. Turnout in the 2012 race that brought Mursi to power was about 52 percent.

Voter participation above that level would have bolstered El-Sisi’s argument that he’s best suited for the job of rebuilding the nation, and the interim government’s claim that the country is increasingly rejecting the Brotherhood.

’Politically Polarized’

Authorities have justified killing hundreds of Islamists and jailing thousands more since Mursi’s overthrow by pointing to rising violence against security forces, which it blames on the Brotherhood and its allies. They reject the charge.

El-Sisi wanted the presidential race to show he has broad popular backing and “the election results show that this is not the case,” Anthony Skinner, director for Middle East and North Africa at Maplecroft, said by phone. “The key point, really, is that Egypt remains incredibly politically polarized and despite all the fervor surrounding El-Sisi’s image, his personality cult, there’s still a large percentage of the population who do not support him.”

Egyptian officials hailed the vote as a milestone in the country’s transition to democracy, and Mansour said it was free of “serious misconduct.”

The Brotherhood, which fielded Mursi for office and was branded a terrorist group after his ouster, says lower voter participation than in 2012 proves the army takeover reversed democratic gains from the 2011 uprising. It has described the turnout level as a “popular punishment for the military coup,” and said in a statement that “the Egyptian people have brought down the curtain on this farcical soap opera.”

Extension Criticized

The European Union, which sent observers, said only “minor problems were observed” in the vote. The decision to extend balloting for another day, while “not against the law, caused unnecessary uncertainty,” Mario David, the observer mission’s chief, told reporters in Cairo.

U.S.-based Democracy International, which also sent observers, criticized the extension. Voter enthusiasm was “dampened by the widespread perception that this election was not meaningful and that its results were predetermined,” it said in an e-mailed statement today. Sabahi said there was bias on the part of state institutions and media. The interim government has repeatedly said that it didn’t take sides.

Key to El-Sisi’s success will be his ability to restore security and lure back investment.

’Feel Safe’

“I just want to feel safe, and Sisi is the one who can make that happen,” Shaimaa Islam, a 35-year-old mother of four, said as she bought groceries after polls closed. “We’re tired of the violence and the problems. We just want to build our lives again.”

While rights groups bemoan what they fear may be the re- emergence of a Mubarak-era police state, investors are betting that El-Sisi may be able to turn the country around.

The benchmark EGX 30 Index has rallied 66 percent since Mursi’s ouster in July, as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait pledged about $15 billion in aid. The funds replenished foreign reserves and allowed the central bank to cut interest rates.

Yet the turnout suggests that El-Sisi won’t be able to simply impose his will on the Egyptian people, columnist Mohamed Amin wrote in today’s independent Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“El-Sisi received his first lesson before he rules,” Amin wrote. “He must review his positions. No one can put Egypt in his pocket.”

--With assistance from Alaa Shahine in Dubai and Ola Galal, Ahmed A. Namatalla and Tamim Elyan in Cairo.