CAIRO: Egyptians trickled to the polls Tuesday in just over half of the country’s 27 provinces in parliamentary runoffs that are part of an election process dubbed as the final transition to democratic rule but that apparently failed to inspire voters.
More than 200 of the legislature’s 596 seats are up for grabs in the two-day balloting in 14 provinces, ending Wednesday. Voting was also held in Cairo’s twin city of Giza and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
Voting in the remaining 13 provinces will be held next month and the legislature is expected to hold its inaugural session in December.
The election’s first round last week had a turnout of 26.56 percent – about half of the turnout in the last parliamentary election held in late 2011 and early 2012, which produced a chamber dominated by Islamists.
It’s too early to predict turnout in the Tuesday-Wednesday runoffs, but TV footage on local news channels taken at polling centers in most of the 14 provinces in which voting is taking place showed a handful of voters in some and none at others.
It was in sharp contrast to the long lines outside polling centers in the 2011-12 vote.
Even if the turnout does not fall below that of the first round, questions will persist on the political direction of the country under Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the country’s general-turned-president elected last year.
Among those voters who did show up Tuesday, women and the elderly were dominant. Conspicuous by their absence were young voters, possibly reflecting growing disenchantment with el-Sissi’s rule.
The next parliament, widely expected to be subservient to el-Sissi, will be the first since the Islamist- dominated chamber was dissolved in 2012 by a court ruling. This is also the first parliamentary election since el-Sissi, as military chief, led the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, following mass street protests against his rule.
The election comes at a time when el-Sissi’s government is struggling to keep the nation’s ailing economy afloat in the face of a slide in the value of the Egyptian pound and a shortage of foreign currency needed to finance vital imports. His government is also under scathing attack for its failure to prepare for or effectively deal with severe flooding in Alexandria that left six people dead after a weekend rainstorm.
The vote takes place also as security forces are struggling to contain an insurgency by Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and in a climate of fear rooted in the continuous erosion of freedoms and a harsh crackdown against Islamists that has left hundreds killed in street clashes and thousands jailed since 2013.
In the past week alone, authorities closed to the public a Cairo shrine revered by Shiite Muslims to prevent them from performing rituals associated with an important Shiite holiday. The mosque housing the shrine was not closed, but access by worshippers was restricted.
A U.S.-based Egyptian scientist who had criticized the military over its claims of a medical breakthrough has complained that authorities cancelled a talk on the planet Mars he planned to give at Alexandria University for security reasons. The University has denied this, arguing it was not given sufficient notice for the lecture by Essam Heggy.
On Sunday, el-Sissi amended prison regulations to allow prison personnel to use force against prisoners who resist orders based on laws or prison regulations, beyond the previously authorized use of force for self-defense and to prevent an escape.
Pro-democracy activists, meanwhile, launched a campaign on social media networks Tuesday to coincide with the runoff, calling for the release of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, one of the country’s most prominent liberal bloggers who is serving a five-year prison sentence.
Abdel-Fattah was convicted of violating a law adopted in late 2013 that placed draconian restrictions on street demonstrations when he took part in a demonstration called to protest the military’s right to try civilians before its tribunals.
El-Sissi last month pardoned about 100 prisoners, mostly liberal activists, in a goodwill gesture marking a Muslim holiday. Their release came just days before he traveled to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly meetings.