Scepticism abounds as Egyptians go to the polls

The first stage of voting in Egypt begins October 24-25 and the runoffs for this stage are scheduled for November 23-24.
Thursday 22/10/2020
Alection campaign member of Mostaqbal Watn (Nation’s Future), Mohamed Soliman over  a highway in Cairo, Egypt October 21. (REUTERS)
Alection campaign member of Mostaqbal Watn (Nation’s Future), Mohamed Soliman over a highway in Cairo, Egypt October 21. (REUTERS)

CAIRO – Egyptians go to the polls this weekend to elect a new parliament, which critics say will simply replicate a “rubber-stamp” body that has been in place since 2015 under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In the second national elections this year, the North African country will elect 568 seats out of 596 in the lower house of parliament.

The remaining deputies will be appointed by former army general-turned-president Sisi, whose government has over the years silenced any serious political opposition to its rule.

“Parliament has become an apparatus attached to the executive authority, with no real legislative authority,” said Hassan Nafaa, political science professor at Cairo University.

“It has almost never questioned any of the government’s policies or carried out any of the functions that parliaments normally do.”

Election campaign banners of Mostaqbal Watn (Nation’s Future) around minarets of Sultan Hassan Mosque and the Al-Rifa’i Mosque in old Islamic Cairo, October 21. (REUTERS)
Election campaign banners of Mostaqbal Watn (Nation’s Future) around minarets of Sultan Hassan Mosque and the Al-Rifa’i Mosque in old Islamic Cairo, October 21. (REUTERS)

Some 63 million registered voters are eligible to take part in the upcoming polls, which, according to the country’s authorities, will be monitored by an international group consisting of seven NGOs from Europe, Africa and the Middle East, along with local partners among Egyptian rights advocacy organisations.

The first stage of voting in Egypt begins October 24-25 and runoffs for this stage are scheduled for November 23-24. The second stage of voting will take place November 7-8,with the runoffs held December 7-8.

Giant billboards have flourished across the bustling capital, Cairo, and elsewhere ahead of the vote on Saturday and Sunday.

And online campaigns have even seen some candidates release video-clips of songs to draw support.

But many of those running this time around also stood for election five years ago in a political landscape marked by dozens of parties with little weight or influence on the ground.

The 2015 parliament was the first to come into office after the Egyptian Army, led by Sisi, ousted Islamist leader Muhammad Morsi following widespread protests against the country’s first democratically elected civilian president.

Sisi then cruised to victory in 2014 presidential elections, winning 96.9% of the vote.

The outgoing parliament was packed with his supporters and featured only a small opposition bloc known as 25/30.

Over 4,000 candidates are running this time, with the most fielded by a pro-government coalition led by Mostakbal Watan party, or the “Nation’s Future Party.”

It includes top businessmen and public figures, and has grown since 2014 to be one of the dominant political forces.

Earlier this week, its leader Abdelwahab Abdelrazek was named head of the Senate.

Observers anticipate that the For the Sake of Egypt list, a 12-party alliance headed by the Nation’s Future Party, will garner the largest share of seats, as was the case in the first Senate elections that concluded several weeks ago.

The October vote is the second to be held amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far infected more than 106,000 people and killed nearly 6,200 in the country.

In August, Egypt held elections for the newly restored 300-seat Senate in low-key upper house elections marked by low voter turnout of around 14%.

The reinstatement of the upper house — which had been abolished after Morsi’s ouster — was among constitutional amendments that Egyptians overwhelmingly voted for last year.

Other amendments included potentially extending Sisi’s rule until 2030, boosting his control over the judiciary and granting the army even greater influence in political life.

“The return of Senate was unnecessary, and parliament only serves as a facade of a legislative authority in Egypt,” said Saeed Sadiq, professor of political sociology at Nile University.

He anticipated another low voter turnout among the country’s 63 million eligible voters this weekend.

Under Sisi, authorities have cracked down on dissent, in a move which has ensnared journalists, online bloggers, lawyers and intellectuals.

A file photo of  an Egyptian Parliament session in Cairo Egypt. (AP)
A file photo of  an Egyptian Parliament session in Cairo Egypt. (AP)

Protests have been effectively banned under a restrictive 2013 law, and a renewable state of emergency has been in place since 2017.

“The public space is only filled with movements, ideologies, and parties supportive of policies of the current ruling system,” said Nafaa.

“There is not a single sign showing that this climate allows for free and real elections.”