Egypt in second day of "election without voters"

By Lin Noueihed
International observers watch a woman cast her vote at a school used as a voting centre in Alexandria, Egypt, October 18, 2015. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

By Lin Noueihed

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said on Monday that turnout during the previous day's parliamentary election was just 15-16 percent but should rise now after public sector workers were given a half-day off to vote.

Voters, however, appeared to be shunning the ballot box for a second day on Monday in what one newspaper called "an election without voters", highlighting growing disillusionment since the army seized power in 2013 and promised to restore democracy.

Sunday and Monday's voting levels were extremely low, a in sharp contrast to the long lines of the 2011-12 election.

Younger Egyptians who comprise the majority of the population, stayed away with many people dismissing it as a sham.

Coming days after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged Egyptians to cast their ballots, the low turnout suggested the former general, who once enjoyed cult-like adulation, was losing some of his appeal.

In 2013, then-army chief Sisi overthrew Egypt's first freely-elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi, and promised a "roadmap to democracy".

He then launched the fiercest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history, jailing thousands of Mursi's supporters as well as activists at the forefront of the 2011 revolt that ended Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule and ignited hopes of change.

Last year's presidential election was extended for a third day in order to boost turnout, with pro-government media pushing Egyptians to show up. Sisi won 97 percent of votes.

This time, even Egypt's largely loyalist press focused on the lack of interest in the polls. Analysts say Sisi may try to spin the apathy to his favour by arguing that Egyptians place more faith in the presidency.

"An election without voters," said a front page headline in the business daily Al-Mal. "Elections without queues," read a headline in Al Shorouk.

Even the pro-government Al Ahram zeroed in on the absence of young people at the ballot box.

"We don't know anything about these candidates so I'm not going to give my vote to someone who doesn't deserve it," Michael Bassili, 19, from Alexandria.

"As youth we're trying to fix the country and we'll work to do this...but these guys are just interested in money and themselves."

DISSOLVED

Egypt has had no parliament since June 2012 when a court dissolved the democratically elected main chamber, then dominated by the Brotherhood, reversing a key accomplishment of the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising.

Repeatedly postponed, Egypt's elections are now taking 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.

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.

Of the 568 elected seats overall, 120 will be contested by closed winner-takes-all lists. But even these are expected to be dominated by loyalists.

Outlawed and branded a terrorist group, the Brotherhood, which won almost half the seats in the last election, is boycotting as is much of the secular and liberal opposition.

An alliance of socialist opposition parties that had been due to contest for seats eventually pulled out.

"There is obvious refusal to participate, which is proof that the people know what is going on right now is a farce designed to make the current regime look democratic," said Mohamed Soudan, an exiled Brotherhood official.

"For the Love of Egypt", an alliance of loyalist parties and politicians, is contesting all list seats and is expected to dominate.

The Islamist Nour Party, which came second in the last election, has taken part and there was anecdotal evidence of marginally higher turnout in some poorer areas where Islamist sympathies run deep. Neverthless, Nour is not expected to scoop up Islamist votes that would have gone to the Brotherhood because it endorsed Mursi's overthrow.

Even some who voted for Sisi last year are not planning to cast a ballot this time.

"There is security since Sisi took power and that's good but its not just about security. A lot of things need to change, the economy, tourism, the high prices in the country," said Ahmed, a 35-year-old father of three.