Low turnout as Egyptians shun elections designed to shore up Sisi
In absence of opposition parties, experts say the result is a foregone conclusion but a low turnout suggests that the strongman president is losing popularity.
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.
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.
It had been the main opposition force for decades, fielding candidates in parliamentary elections under Mubarak despite an official ban.
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.
'The Egyptian government is waging a war on civil society'
With the revolution an ever more distant memory, Egyptian rulers are clamping down hard on NGOs
A toddler waves the Egyptian flag in January 2012 as protesters celebrate the one-year anniversary of the revolution. A year and a half later President Morsi would be removed from power by the military. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Rania Al Malky
When the Egyptian government announced last month that it had dissolved 57 NGOs, all accused of having links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, it was just the latest step in a process which, under the guise of anti-terrorist policy, is tearing apart the carefully woven fabric of Egyptian society.
The war on civil society has come in two forms, with the main target being the Muslim Brotherhood. Back in 2012, after the elation of the 2011 revolution, the MB candidate Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first ever democratically elected president. But after the army removed him from power in July 2013, the new government moved swiftly to clamp down on both the Muslim Brotherhood and its civil society activities.
An extra-judicial announcement by the interim cabinet declaring the Brotherhood “a terrorist organisation” in December 2013 was followed by a court ruling. These moves have to date resulted in the seizure of 1,300 MB-affiliated NGOs, whose assets were frozen, their premises confiscated by the state and management taken over by the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
By July 2015, the number of civil society organisations shut down for allegedly belonging to the MB had reached 434, according to official statements. Some of those worked with some of the poorest people in Egypt’s poorest provinces. The MB’s Islamic Medical Association (IMA) for example, served 2 million sick patients and thousands of who were in need of kidney dialysis, all unable to pay for medical treatment. Their charitable, self-sustaining network constituted a parallel welfare system that often surpassed the “free” government educational and health services in both quality and efficiency – hence the group’s mobilising capacity.
Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie on trial in Cairo, May 18, 2014. Photograph: Al Youm al Saabi/Reuters
But in early 2015 the IMA was taken over, its board of directors replaced by pro-regime figures from the health ministry and a new chairman appointed: former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa – notorious for his anti-Brotherhood rhetoric.
The Muslim Brotherhood has not been the only victim of the regime’s crackdown on NGOs. Over the years, the Egyptian government has capriciously targeted other NGOs with a slew of laws effectively criminalising their activities. It has particularly singled out organisations calling for social reform, political liberalisation, and respect for human rights and workers’ rights.
According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, while Egypt’s NGO law is one of the most restrictive in the world, the “effect of the restrictive legal framework … has not been to ban civil society outright but rather to give enormous discretionary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity”. All civil society must register with the government, while – as in other countries – counter-terrorism legislation is also invoked against “any association, organisation, group or gang” that attempts to “destabilise the public order or … endanger social unity.”
As a result, organisations and individuals crossing certain red lines are “increasingly forced to operate in a climate of fear, limitation, and uncertainty”, and intimidated by ad hoc security probes.
Mohamed Zaree, a lawyer and researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) tells me that the law practically equates what they do at the institute – raising awareness of civic rights or calling for group action in the form of peaceful protest or strikes – to what Islamic State is doing on the border. “We too can be accused of ‘endangering social unity’ or ‘threatening national peace’,” he says.
The real objective of these laws and the related character assassination media campaigns targeting civil society activists, he explains, is to close the public space and restrict it to official government activity or pro-regime voices. “Basically, they are created to terrorise people like us, to terrorise press freedom advocates, workers’ unions and even political parties. They will have no effect on someone who has no problem blowing himself up,” he says.
Refusing to register in response to the government’s recent ultimatum, Zaree’s Cairo Institute is now under investigation sharing the fate of other organisations like the Hisham Mubarak Law Center for receiving foreign funds.
“The regime has no issue with foreign funding, they have an issue with what we are doing,” he says.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the most respected and influential human rights organisations in Egypt, has taken a different tack, deciding to register to cut the red herring of their legal status out of the debate, which has initiated a long-winded cat-and-mouse process. In the meantime they have had to downsize from 80 staff members to 40 and limit the foreign funds they are receiving.
“The model we built [relying on foreign funding] was unsustainable,” says Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of EIPR. “We had a golden opportunity to capitalise on millions who called for human dignity in 2011 … we have a huge following and this is what we need to build on.” He is now seriously examining the option of crowd-funding through membership contributions.
Protest by supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, 06 Oct 2015. Photograph: APAImages/Rex Shutterstock
The registration deadline not only sent shockwaves across civil society circles, but also forced donors to hold off on supporting organisations which have hitherto survived under the radar, circumventing government oversight by registering as not-for-profit companies.
A development worker employed at a foreign state’s donor agency tells me that even donors with no controversial political agenda in the region have made no disbursements directly to human rights programs in the past year.
Funds have been given to support UN or EU projects in the safe areas of women’s rights and FGM eradication, but anything beyond that has become risky, the development worker says. “It’s dangerous for them to receive money.”
They still finger-print