Egypt polling stations empty for no-contest vote

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Tony Gamal-Gabriel
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Cairo (AFP) - Like scores of polling stations across the Egyptian capital, a school in the Dokki neighbourhood stood empty Monday, with local residents showing scant interest in the country's no-contest parliamentary election.

In the absence of any real opposition, the new parliament is expected to firmly back President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's iron-fisted regime that has crushed all forms of dissent.

Sisi, who enjoys cult-like status in Egypt after having ousted his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013, will have a parliament to rubber-stamp his decisions, experts say.

"This is the lowest voter participation" since 2011, a judge supervising the polling station at the school in Dokki said on condition of anonymity.

The 2011 election, Egypt's first ever democratic vote, was held at a time of revolutionary fervour following the fall of veteran leader Hosni Mubarak after an 18-day popular uprising.

In the first round of that election, enthusiasm ran high and turnout reached 62 percent across nine of the country's 27 provinces.

This time, Prime Minister Sharif Ismail said only 15-16 percent of voters across 14 provinces had cast ballots on Sunday -- the first day of the opening stage of voting in the election, being held in phases over six weeks.

"The main phenomenon of the election is the low turnout," Abdallah Fathi, head of the judges' syndicate, told a private television network, as supervisors at two other polling stations told AFP of an absence of voters.

- 'High turnout boosts regime'-

"The people ignore parliament," read a front-page headline in the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm on Monday.

Whereas the last election was swept by Islamists, the authorities have since Morsi's ouster mounted a deadly government crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The crackdown has killed hundreds of Morsi supporters, imprisoned tens of thousands and put several of Brotherhood leaders including Morsi on trials.

The crackdown has also targeted the secular camp and leftists, including those who spearheaded the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising.

But many Egyptians, tired of years of political turmoil since the fall of Mubarak, see Sisi as the only leader capable of offering stability and reviving the country's ailing economy.

Experts say the idea that Egypt needs a strong leader rather than democracy is widespread, and in this context having a parliament hardly matters.

"I'm not voting.... The president is doing well now," said 41-year-old mechanic Ramadan Said. "Anyway the candidates are only after personal glory."

Ahead of the election Sisi called for a strong participation, urging voters to "make the right choice".

But faced with a low turnout on the first day, the government announced a half-day off for public sector workers Monday and urged the private sector to also "facilitate" voting for their employees.

"Voter turnout is very important for the regime," said political expert Azmi Khalifa. "A high turnout boosts the president's legitimacy."

- Failed promises -

During the May 2014 president election, which Sisi won, the authorities extended voting by a day because of a low turnout.

The contrast with the polls of 2011 is striking.

"There was more enthusiasm in 2011 as everyone wanted to participate to express their opinion," said Mohamed al-Berri. "This parliament will be like the ones we had under Mubarak."

On social media, Egyptians posted pictures of endless queues of voters outside polling stations four years ago.

This time even voters who backed Sisi in the 2014 presidential poll are disenchanted.

"Of course I'm not voting," said Mohamed el-Sherif, 26, who voted for Sisi last year. "People had hope in 2011. Today, they have lost it."