Voter apathy fears as Egypt heads to the polls

Turnout could dwindle as pro-government parties look set to take control of Parliament

A truck carrying camels drives under campaign banners of candidates which are seen in a street, before the first round of the parliamentary election, in the Giza suburb of Awsim, Egypt October 18, 2020. Picture taken October 18, 2020. REUTERS / Shokry Hussien

Egypt’s 63 million registered voters have begun electing a new parliament in the third nationwide vote to be held in less than two years.

Egyptian expatriates began voting on Wednesday and continued on Thursday, but voters at home in the most populous Arab nation will go to the polls on Saturday and Sunday.

The election for the House of Deputies will most likely produce a pro-government chamber like its predecessor, which offered President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s administration near unconditional support as it embarked on an ambitious programme to reform the economy and restore law and order after years of turmoil, all while fighting an insurgency by militants in the northern portion of the Sinai Peninsula.

With the vote so likely to yield an overwhelmingly pro-government legislature, attention will be focused on the election turnout to gauge popular interest in the country’s political process.

Two months ago, just 14.23 per cent of Egypt’s registered voters cast ballots for the election of 200 members of the House of Senators, an advisory, 300-seat upper chamber. President El Sisi appointed the remaining 100, who included newspaper editors, actors and retired police and army officers.

In a decision yet to be acted upon, Egypt’s electoral commission said in August it intended to prosecute the 54 million eligible voters who stayed away from the polls. Commentators at the time attributed the low turnout to the coronavirus pandemic and voter apathy.

Last year, Egyptians voted in a referendum to allow Mr El Sisi to stay in power until 2030 if he so chooses and resurrected the upper house of parliament, or the House of Senators, which had been struck out by Egypt’s 2014 constitution.

The election of the House of Deputies for a five-year term is staggered over two stages for voters both at home and abroad. Voters elect a total of 568 deputies divided equally between those running on party ‘lists’ or as individual candidates.

Final results will be announced in December following reruns next month. The president will later appoint 28 deputies, taking the total number of deputies to 596.

A pro-government list - the National List for Egypt’s Sake - is expected to sweep the 284 seats up for grab. Individual candidates representing parties also loyal to the government were expected to win all but a handful of the other 284 seats that opposition politicians are likely to win, mirroring their modest representation in the outgoing chamber.

Like the House of Senators, women will make up 25 per cent of the lower chamber’s deputies, a quota that was introduced to the constitution by last year’s amendments, which also enshrined a supreme political role for the military, from which Mr El Sisi hails, and gave the president more control over the judiciary.

Constitutional law professor Ali Abdel Al is expected to retain his seat as speaker in the new legislature.

The election comes at a time when Cairo is coming under renewed pressure over its human rights record.

Rights groups say Egypt has detained thousands of activists and supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood since Mr El Sisi’s election to office in 2014. A year earlier, as defence minister, he led the military’s removal of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist president whose one-year rule was divisive.

Morsi’s removal came amid mass street protests against his rule and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s government maintains that it has no political prisoners, arguing that legal proceedings were in progress against all detainees. It also rejects criticism of its human rights record, saying it is based on false information or inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine stability.

Mr El Sisi has tirelessly declared the economy and stability as his absolute priorities while pressing ahead with a massive, high-octane drive to upgrade Egypt’s infrastructure, build new cities and implement an ambitious economic reform programme that has won lavish praise from international financial agencies but hit hard the poor and middle classes.