By Ahmed Aboulenein and Eric Knecht
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians began voting in a long-awaited parliamentary election on Sunday, the final step in a process that was meant to put the country back on a democratic course but which critics say has been undermined by state repression.
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.
Then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted elected President Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood the following year, banning Egypt's oldest Islamist movement and declaring it a terrorist organization.
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 rubber-stamp parliament.
In a televised speech on Saturday, Sisi called on all Egyptians to head to the ballot boxes and urged the armed forces and interior ministry to secure the voting process.
"I call on you all, men and women, young and old, farmers and workers from all over the country to rally for the sake of the country... and choose well," he said.
Sisi 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 favored 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.
"If you want prestige in your constituency, you join parliament. If you are a businessmen and you want to finish business deals, you join parliament... 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.
With Egypt's largest opposition movement excluded and the secular opposition weakened by internal divisions and funding problems, analysts and politicians expect turnout to be low.
Few expect it to exceed a third of the electorate as Egyptians suffer from election fatigue. Since the 2011 uprising, they have seen the parliament they elected dissolved and the president they chose overthrown following protests from Egyptians worried about security and economic mismanagement.
"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, running its own party lists in two districts and fielding individual candidates too. However, it has lost much support among Islamists since endorsing Mursi's overthrow.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the Free Egyptians party founded by Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire businessman and Coptic Christian, has joined the "For the Love of Egypt" alliance but is also running for individual seats on a platform of economic reform. The Free Egyptians seek to minimize the role of religion in politics.
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 delegitimizes the parliament before it has even been elected," said Nathan Brown, professor at George Washington University.
(Writing and additional reporting by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Michael Georgy and Adrian Croft)