CAIRO (AP) — Egypt announced Thursday that the nation's long-delayed parliament elections will start in March and that the voting will be staggered over seven weeks — the final step in a political roadmap put in place by the military after its ouster of the country's first democratically elected president.
The chief of the Supreme Election Committee, Ayman Abbas, said the voting will take place in phases in Egypt's 27 provinces and among Egyptians living abroad.
Egypt has been mired in turmoil since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The country has been without a legislature for more than two years, after its last elected house was dissolved by a 2012 court ruling. Legislative powers have lately resided in the hands of new President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, elected in June 2014.
The previous house was controlled by Islamists, chiefly members of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to power in the country's first democratically held vote following Mubarak's toppling. But a court dissolved the Islamist-dominated chamber on a technicality, days before Islamist Mohammed Morsi was elected president in 2012.
The crisis culminated in July 2013, when the military stepped in, ousting Morsi in the face of popular protests against his rule. Morsi's critics accused him and his Brotherhood of monopolizing power.
Since then, the military-backed authorities have cracked down on Morsi's supporters and other Islamists, killing hundreds and arresting thousands. Morsi and other leaders are all incarcerated and facing trials.
The Brotherhood — once Egypt's most powerful political organization — has been declared a terrorist group and cannot run in the elections.
Space for dissent has also shrunk, with restrictive laws for assembly and public gatherings. Old faces from the Mubarak era have returned to the political scene, backed by powerful business networks, while youth groups that spearheaded the uprising against Mubarak have been decimated amid a wider crackdown on dissent.
In related developments, an Egyptian court said Thursday it will announce a verdict on April 21 in one of the trials of Morsi. The case pertains to charges of inciting the killing of protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012, when Muslim Brotherhood members attacked a sit-in, sparking clashes that killed 10 people.
If found guilty, Morsi could face the death penalty in that case. He also faces two other ongoing cases and a set of charges that have yet to be brought to trial.
In announcing the elections, Abbas, the head of Supreme Elections Committee, said the first phase of balloting will be held in 14 provinces over three days, starting March 21 for Egyptians from those provinces living abroad. Voters in Egypt in the same provinces are to cast ballots on March 22 and 23. Reruns are due a week later.
Voting in the remaining 13 provinces will begin on April 25 for Egyptians abroad while voters in Egypt will go to the polls on April 26 and 27. Reruns are to take place a week later, ending on May 7.
Abbas did not give a date for the final results. He said the date for candidates to come forward has yet to be announced. Egypt has nearly 54 million voters.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian army said Thursday it was doubling the size of a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip, an operation that will involve the destruction of 1,220 more homes and the eviction of residents.
The operation will expand the existing 500 meter (yard) buffer zone in the north of the Sinai Peninsula that was created last November in a move meant to halt the flow of weapons and militants through cross-border smuggling tunnels. The buffer also put more pressure on the Palestinian militant Hamas group, which is an ally of the Brotherhood and which rules the coastal area.
The creation of the buffer has drawn criticism — the forced evictions are displacing a restive population with longstanding grievances against the government. North Sinai is one of Egypt's poorest districts, and the local population has complained of neglect and discrimination for decades.
Military and police have come under escalating attacks as authorities battle a low-level insurgency in Sinai, which intensified following Morsi's ouster. The militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group that has captures a third of both Iraq and Syria, has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks in Sinai.
Egypt announced the first stage of the demolition plan in October, after militants killed 31 Egyptian troops in an assault on a checkpoint 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the border town of Rafah, the deadliest attack on Egypt's army in recent history.