Amid pandemic, Egypt votes on reintroduced upper house of parliament

The 300-seat House of Senators will have no legislative powers and will play a purely consultative role

Egyptians went to the polls on Tuesday wearing masks and observing social distancing to vote for an upper house of parliament, which was reintroduced by constitutional amendments approved last year.

The 300-seat chamber – which was struck out in 2014 and is known as the House of Senators – will have no legislative powers and will play a purely consultative role, vetting draft legislation referred by the president or the legislature. A third of its members will be appointed by President Abdel-Fatah El Sisi, whose supporters are likely to dominate the new chamber.

Another 100 seats are reserved for individual candidates, while the final 100 are running on a list dominated by pro-government parties.

The voting is staggered over two days. It follows voting by mail on Sunday and Monday by Egyptian expatriates in more than 140 countries.

The results will be announced in September following a second round of voting, if necessary, to be held later this month.

Predictably, turnout was slim when voting began at 9am in the roughly 14,000 polling stations across this country of 100 million people. A dozen or so voters were seen outside polling centres in Cairo, a city of more than 20 million people.

Turnout has traditionally been low for parliament’s upper chamber given that it has no legislative powers, but authorities were likely to try to prop up the numbers by using the pro-government media and social media networks to encourage voters to head to the polls.

In the densely populated Cairo district of Shoubra, loudspeakers fitted outside polling centres broadcast patriotic songs, women voters loyal to the government ululated and small children waved Egyptian flags.

Lasheen Ibrahim, head of the National Election Authority, said voting was a “national duty” and warned that a fine of 500 pounds awaited those among the 63 million registered voters who abstain from voting. Similar threats had failed to persuade voters to participate in past elections and authorities had never diligently attempted to go after abstaining voters.

There has been no tangible sign of the election except the giant billboards on the side of major roads featuring some of the 787 candidates in the running, mostly in business suits with promising catchphrases.

“I intend to vote tomorrow because I am busy at work today,” said Fahd Hassan, an office worker who lives in Cairo. “Who knows, maybe those future senators will have more expertise and be more political savvy than these in the house of deputies.”

However, there is much more in play this time round beside voters’ apathy to explain the likely low turnout.

The election comes at a time when Egypt appears headed toward a “second wave” of the coronavirus pandemic – Egyptians let out a sigh of relief in late July and early August when the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths dramatically dropped from record highs in June and early July.

Nearly 100,000 confirmed cases and more than 5,000 deaths – the highest number of fatalities in the Middle East after Iran and Turkey, according to an Associated Press tally – have been recorded since the epidemic began in mid-February, according to Health Ministry figures.

The numbers, officials have said, are likely to be much higher, but the ministry’s figures, while not reflecting reality, represent a reliable trend.

The number of confirmed cases began to rise last Wednesday – 123 cases – and continued until Sunday, when 178 cases have been recorded. Monday’s figures showed 174 cases.

Authorities have said that voters must wear masks when they head to the polls and maintain social distancing. Masks were made available at polling stations free of charge.

A second factor contributing to a low turnout is that the election of a mostly toothless body, while not appealing to voters, came at the height of a particularly hot and humid summer.