Egyptians vote in 2nd stage of parliamentary elections

AP News
Posted: Nov 22, 2015 1:55 PM
Egyptians vote in 2nd stage of parliamentary elections

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptians trickled into mostly empty polling centers as they voted Sunday in the second stage of parliamentary elections that will produce the country's first legislature since a chamber dominated by Islamists was dissolved by a court ruling in 2012.

Tens of thousands of troops and policemen were deployed to safeguard the two-day vote, reflecting growing security concerns less than a month after a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. Russia has said the crash was caused by an onboard bomb, and a local Islamic State affiliate claimed the Oct. 31 attack.

The attack led Russia to suspend flights to and from Egypt and Britain to cancel routes to the popular Sharm el-Sheikh resort, where the flight originated, dealing a major blow to Egypt's tourism industry, which was already hurting from years of unrest.

The new, 596-seat legislature is due to hold its inaugural session next month after a runoff is held in early December. Egyptians voted last month in 14 provinces, the vote's first phase, with a turnout of nearly 27 percent. The latest phase is being held in the other 14 provinces and the capital, Cairo.

That was the lowest turnout in any vote, except one for a toothless upper chamber in 2012, since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a 2011 popular uprising.

Turnout in the second phase is not likely to be much higher given the widespread apathy over the political process under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The career army officer led the military's ouster of Egypt's first freely elected leader, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, in 2013, amid a wave of mass demonstrations against his rule. El-Sissi was elected last year.

The trickle of voters in nine polling stations visited by Associated Press reporters in Cairo on Sunday was in sharp contrast to the long lines seen in the first elections held after Mubarak's ouster.

During this election's first phase last month, the government sought to boost turnout by giving employees a half-day off to cast their ballots on the second day of voting. Still, it is unlikely that the overall turnout in the election will exceed 30 percent. There has been no official word on granting workers time off Monday.

"If we were asking people to donate money, we would see longer lines than this," quipped 22-year-old shopkeeper Yassin Hany, as he came out of a polling center in Cairo's Ain Shams district. "The government only pays attention to us when they want us to vote. We are only visible then."

"I only voted because maybe one of the people running will not be completely bad," he added.

Since Morsi's ouster, authorities have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, his now-banned Islamist group, jailing thousands and killing hundreds in street clashes with security forces. The young liberal and pro-democracy activists who spearheaded the 2011 uprising have also been swept up in the crackdown, with authorities detaining dozens of them, mostly for breaching a law adopted in 2013 that effectively bans street demonstrations.

The Brotherhood, which swept every vote held after Mubarak's ouster until Morsi was overthrown, are boycotting the election, along with most secular, liberal and left-wing activists.

"You tell people to stay away from politics and you jail those who don't listen. The government shouldn't complain about the low turnout," said a government employee who wanted to be identified only by her first name, Dalia. "Give us real politics, we give you real participation," the 52-year-old added with a smile.

"I will not give legitimacy to this child's play," said Brotherhood supporter and homemaker Gamila Osman, 45. "I will not vote."

With street politics eradicated and severe restrictions placed on the public sphere, political apathy has become widespread. A personality cult around el-Sissi, which peaked last year, is slowly eroding. But many still believe that only the retired general, not elected lawmakers, can lift the country from its deepening economic woes and combat the Islamic insurgency.

Most of the candidates for parliament are either members of electoral alliances supportive of el-Sissi or political independents -- mainly businessmen and local power brokers, many of whom served as legislators during the Mubarak era. Some candidates and parties oppose specific government policies, but none are challenging el-Sissi's rule.

The next legislature is expected to be compliant, or at least dominated by lawmakers who support el-Sissi. Since taking office 17 months ago, the retired general has run the country with few checks or balances, issuing about 300 laws, including key legislation on the exercise of political rights and an anti-terrorism law that has placed restrictions on the media.

"You can't think straight when you are hungry. That is why they (voters) are not coming out," Ismail Hamed, a 38-year-old father of six, said as he alternated between smoking a water pipe and cigarettes at a Cairo cafe. "If you didn't eat in a day, would you care about elections?" he said.