Egyptian voters appear to have shunned the first phase of a parliamentary election that president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had hailed as a milestone on the road to democracy but which his critics have called a sham.
Polling stations visited by Reuters correspondents on Sunday pointed to a turnout of around 10%, in sharp contrast to the long lines that formed in the 2012 election. A low turnout suggests that Sisi, who has enjoyed cult-like adulation, is losing popularity.
“It’s not going to matter. It’s just for show, to show that we are a democracy, and we have elections,” said Ahmed Mostafa, 25, who works in a lab.
The vote for the 596-member parliament will be held in two phases ending on 2 December, with Egyptians abroad casting their votes for the first round from Saturday.
But with an absence of opposition parties – such as the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which has faced a deadly government crackdown overseen by Sisi – the poll has not inspired the enthusiasm witnessed for Egypt’s first democratic elections in 2011.
Experts say the outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion and only voter turnout will be a gauge of popularity for Sisi, who has enjoyed cult-like status since he ousted his predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Most of the more than 5,000 candidates in the polls support Sisi and are expected to dominate parliament.
Hazem Hosny, political science professor at Cairo University said: “This parliament will be a parliament of the president. It’s really a parliament … to keep things as they are, to give an image of democracy.”
Many Egyptians, tired of political turmoil since veteran leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, support Sisi, who has vowed to revive an ailing economy and restore stability.
Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian leader, was ousted by then army chief Sisi on 3 July 2013, after mass street protests against his divisive year-long rule.
The ensuing government crackdown overseen by Sisi targeting Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement left hundreds dead and thousands jailed.
Hundreds more, including Morsi, have been sentenced to death after speedy trials, which the UN denounced as “unprecedented in recent history”.
Sisi, meanwhile, won a presidential election in 2014.
Scores of policemen and soldiers have been killed in jihadi attacks since the crackdown on Islamists began, with the Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State group leading a deadly insurgency in North Sinai.
Sisi enjoys support from western countries who have signed major arms deals with Cairo to back him in the fight against jihadists.
“Sisi is our soul … without him we would have been migrants like those from other countries around us,” said Buthaina Shehata after she cast her vote at a Cairo polling booth.
The constitution empowers parliament to move a no-confidence motion against the president and gives lawmakers 15 days to review all presidential decrees.
But experts say the ability of lawmakers might be close to zero given the absence of any real opposition.
It had been the main opposition force for decades, fielding candidates in parliamentary elections under Mubarak despite an official ban.The Brotherhood dominated the last assembly but is now banned after being blacklisted as a “terrorist organisation,” while leftist and secular movements that led the 2011 uprising are boycotting the election or lacking representation in the polls.
Its party took 44% of seats in the first free democratic elections following Mubarak downfall in 2011.
That parliament was dissolved in June 2012, but the Brotherhood’s popularity shone through days later when Morsi, a civilian, was elected, putting an end to six decades of presidents coming from military ranks.
As Egyptians abroad started casting their ballots on Saturday, Sisi appeared on television calling on citizens to vote.
“Celebrate the choice of representatives and make the right choice,” he said.
“I am expecting Egyptian youth to be the driving force in this celebration of democracy.”
Of the 596 lawmakers being elected, 448 will be voted in as independents, 120 on party lists, and 28 will be presidential appointees.
The main coalition is the pro-Sisi For the Love of Egypt, which includes leading businessmen and former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic party. It aims to win two-thirds of the seats.
The openly pro-Sisi Salafist Al-Nur party, which backed the ousting of Morsi , is the only Islamist party standing.
About 55 million voters are eligible to cast their votes in the two-stage election across the country’s 27 provinces, with polling in the first stage to be held over two days.
Any run-off in the first phase will be contested on 27-28 October. The second phase starts on 21 November.