By Ahmed Aboulenein and Eric Knecht
Egyptians turned out in low numbers on Sunday to vote in the first phase of an election hailed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a milestone on the road to democracy but shunned by critics who say the new chamber will rubber stamp his decisions.
With most of Sisi’s opponents behind bars, critics say the new chamber is unlikely to challenge the former army chief who toppled Egypt’s first freely-elected president in 2013.
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.
Sisi, the latest man from the military to rule Egypt, ousted elected President Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood after mass protests against him and then launched the fiercest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history.
Visits by Reuters correspondents to polling stations showed light turnout and little enthusiasm, in sharp contrast to the long lines that formed at the last, Islamist-dominated election in 2012.
Most voters interviewed were elderly 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.
In the early afternoon in the working class Cairo neighbourhood of Gezirat al-Dahab, a judge at a polling station said only about 10 percent of the 9,000 registered voters had taken part.
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 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 pliant 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 or middle-aged, in a country where half the rapidly-growing population is under 25.
“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.
With Egypt’s largest opposition movement excluded and the secular opposition weakened by internal divisions, few analysts expect turnout to exceed a third of the electorate.
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 Mursi’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 Oct 18-19 and Nov 22-23.
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.
“You don’t join parliament to oppose the government.”
The unicameral 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.
“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 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.