Low turnout as Egypt holds first elections since Morsi ousted
President Sisi struggling to revive economy and crush Islamic insurgency
Egyptians queue outside a polling station in the al-Haram neighbourhood in the southern Cairo Giza district. Photograph: Khaled DesoukiAFP/Getty Images
Egypt’s long-awaited parliamentary election got off to a slow start on Sunday, marking the final step in a process that was meant to restore democracy but which critics say has been undermined by state repression.
Egypt has had no parliament since June 2012 when a court dissolved the democratically-elected main chamber, then dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, reversing a key accomplishment of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted elected president Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood the following year, banning Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement and declaring it a terrorist organisation.
Mr Sisi has described the election as a milestone in his roadmap to democracy.
Visits to polling stations and state television broadcasts showed light turnout and little enthusiasm in early voting, in sharp contrast to the long lines that formed at the last, Islamist-dominated election in 2012.
Most voters interviewed were supporters of Sisi, who has brought a sense of stability after years of political turmoil but has been accused by human rights groups of crushing opponents. He denies the allegations.
Security was tight in a country facing an insurgency led by a Sinai-based group that supports Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni group based in Iraq and Syria.
Egypt’s constitution, passed by referendum before Mr Sisi won a presidential vote in mid-2014, endows the new parliament with wide-ranging powers. On paper, it can reject the president’s choice for prime minister or even impeach the president.
But with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and youth activists at the forefront of the 2011 revolt behind bars, critics fear the elections will produce a rubber-stamp parliament.
Soldiers and policemen stood guard outside a polling station in a school in October 6 City on the outskirts of Cairo, where there were only about 30 people casting ballots.
Vans blasted nationalist and pro-army songs. Most voters were elderly and middle-aged.
“I want the youth to get elected. We need new blood,” said Fatma Farag, an elderly woman.
In Cairo’s low-income Boulaq al-Dakrour neighbourhood, there were many campaign banners but far more police and polling station workers than voters.
Mr Sisi faces a multitude of challenges, including widespread poverty, an energy crisis, high unemployment and attacks by militants which have killed hundreds of soldiers and police since Mr Morsi’s fall and hurt the vital tourism industry.
He secured support from other opposition groups for ousting Mursi by promising a prompt parliamentary vote. The elections, repeatedly postponed, will now take place over two rounds on October 18th and 19th and November 22nd and 23rd.
This week, voters cast their ballots in 14 regions including Egypt’s second city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast and Giza, a province which includes parts of Cairo west of the Nile.
Critics say an electoral system that puts the emphasis on individuals is a throwback to Mubarak-era politics, which favoured candidates with wealth and connections over parties with clear ideological agendas or policy platforms.
“Being a member of parliament for many is a chance to be close to government. It’s like joining the government club,” said Khaled Dawoud, who recently resigned as spokesman for the Destour Party and Democratic Current electoral alliance.
“If you want prestige in your constituency, you join parliament. If you are a businessmen and you want to finish business deals, you join parliament... You don’t join parliament to oppose the government.”
The parliament will comprise 568 elected members - 448 elected on an individual basis and 120 through winner-takes-all lists in four districts with quotas for women, Christians and youth. The president may also appoint a further five percent.
Run-offs will take place in districts where no clear winner has emerged, with the final results expected in December.
With Egypt’s largest opposition movement excluded and the secular opposition weakened by internal divisions and funding problems, few analysts or politicians expect turnout to exceed a third of the electorate.
“For the Love of Egypt”, an alliance of loyalist parties and politicians, is running for all 120 list seats and is expected to do well.
An alliance of socialist opposition parties that had been due to contest the list seats eventually pulled out, leaving the field dominated by Sisi loyalists.
The Islamist Nour Party, which seeks to impose strict Sharia law and came second in the last election, will take part. However, it has lost much support among Islamists since endorsing Mursi’s overthrow.
Speculation is already rife that the constitution will be amended to curb parliament’s wide-ranging powers and concentrate authority in the hands of Mr Sisi.
“It is hard to tell how serious such talk is, but at a minimum it delegitimises the parliament before it has even been elected,” said Nathan Brown, professor at George Washington University.