A Depressed Egypt Heads to the Polls

6 minute read

In stark contrast to the turmoil and heated political contests of years past, Egypt launched a second round of legislative elections on Sunday in an atmosphere of repression and apathy.

The election takes place in a context of restricted freedom of expression and a narrowing of the world of politics in Egypt more than two years after the country’s previous elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military takeover.

Most of Egypt’s key opposition parties are boycotting the vote, saying they cannot freely participate in an election in the midst of a political crackdown that resulted in the jailing of tens of thousands of people. The group that used to be the country’s largest grassroots political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, is now outlawed.

Turnout has been minimal, and there is some debate about whether the incoming parliament will have any power in the emerging political order under the current president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the man who led the military’s removal of Morsi in 2013 and presided over the subsequent crackdown.

The combination of boycotts and a widespread sense of political malaise means that many potential voters are writing the election off. In the first of two rounds of voting in October, when balloting took place in roughly half Egypt’s provinces, turnout was 26.56 percent, down from 52 percent overall turnout in the last parliamentary election in 2011-2012.

At polling station set up in a high school in Cairo’s Sayyeda Zeinab district, a slow stream of women strode past the police and uniformed soldiers standing sentry at the entrance, including one wearing a mask and standing behind a pile of sandbags.

Rasha Gamal Eddin, a 33-year-old pharmacist from Cairo, accompanied an elderly relative to vote at the school. She was undecided on voting herself, unsure of where her own polling place was. “People are depressed,” she said. She had no hope that the incoming parliament could rescue Egypt’s economy or reform flawed institutions like the school system. She laughs in a tone of resignation, “The country’s going from bad to worse.”

The new parliament will come into being in a moment of broad regional crisis. Egypt’s government is waging a continued battle with ISIS militants in the Sinai Peninsula who claimed to have bombed a Russian airliner that crashed in October killing 224 people. The crash spelled doom for Egypt’s battered tourist sector, which accounted for one of every nine jobs in Egypt in 2014. The government faces inflation, a falling currency, and signs of public discontent.

Those who are voting face a choice among parties and candidates who largely backed the military 2013 takeover. Although Sisi does not preside over any specific political party the incoming parliament will be dominated by politicians who support him.

The most prominent player is a grand coalition of parties called For the Love of Egypt, led by Sameh Seif al-Yazal, a former general and intelligence officer who is a ubiquitous media presence. The coalition includes the pro-business center-right Free Egyptians Party as well as the Nation’s Future Party, led by a 24-year-old politician named Mohamed Badran, who is known for his close ties to the president.

“No one running for this elections even remotely represents opposition to the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” said Yasser El-Shimy, a teaching fellow at Boston University and former Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group “Unsurprisingly, most Egyptians do not wish to partake in such a farce.”

In the wake of the government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists are absent from the election with the exception of the Nour Party, an offshoot of the ultraconservative Salafi movement. The Nour Party broke with Islamist ranks in 2013 by supporting the military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi. But the party has suffered in the post-Morsi world, finding itself the target of vitriol by anti-Islamist politicians.

The incoming parliament will be Egypt’s first since the last elected body was dissolved by a high court ruling in June 2012 while the country was on the cusp of a transition from rule by a council of military leaders to Morsi’s Islamist administration.

It remains to be seen what role the new legislature will play in the present political reality dominated by the president, the military, and powerful institutions such as the security forces and judiciary. In the absence of a parliament, Sisi has legislated by decree.

“Whatever function the new parliament will have, it will not be primarily to legislate or to keep the government accountable,” said Samer Shehata, a noted expert on Egyptian politics at the University of Oklahoma. “It will pose no real challenge to the government.”

The sense of public indifference to the current election differs from past electoral contests. In 2011 and 2012, Egyptians went to the polls in a state of high emotion, less than a year after the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat who ruled for roughly three decades. A broad spectrum of candidates and parties participated in the election, resulting in a parliament dominated by Islamists. The 2012 presidential election of 2012 was also fiercely contested by a strange mix of Islamist, statist and leftist candidates.

In the presidential election of 2014, which formally brought Sisi to power, more than 25 million people voted, or roughly 47 percent of those eligible. Sisi’s cult of personality and a wave of ultranationalist feeling combined to produce a significant performance of support for the government.

The parties now vying for seats in the new parliament will receive votes from many voters who see Sisi as a force for stability, but the current election has generated none of the nationalist urgency of 2013 and 2014. In first round of the current election, images of empty polling stations went viral under a hashtag that translates to “No one came.

Ahmed Imam, a spokesman for the moderate Islamist Strong Egypt party, said that the current election was a contest “between supporters and other supporters” of the current government. The group is now boycotting the parliamentary election in protest of political repression.

“We’ve said from the beginning that you can’t have a democratic process when you have 40,000 political activists in prison,” he said.

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