Egypt gives workers time off in attempt to boost low turnout in parliamentary elections

Egypt gave government workers a half-day off on Monday in an attempt to boost low turnout in the first legislative elections since a chamber dominated by Islamists was dissolved by a court ruling in 2012, but there was no sign of increased activity at polling stations.

CAIRO — Egypt gave government workers a half-day off on Monday in an attempt to boost low turnout in the first legislative elections since a chamber dominated by Islamists was dissolved by a court ruling in 2012, but there was no sign of increased activity at polling stations.

Monday is the second day of voting in 14 provinces, including Cairo’s twin city of Giza and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. Voting in Egypt’s other 13 provinces, including Cairo, will take place next month.

Final results are scheduled to be announced in December and the 596-seat chamber is expected to hold its inaugural session later in the month, thus completing a three-phase political roadmap announced by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi when, as military chief, he ousted Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi in July 2013.

The first two phases were drafting and adopting a new constitution by January 2014, replacing a charter mostly written by Morsi supporters and which had an Islamist slant. Presidential elections, which el-Sissi won last year, were the second stage.

The parliamentary elections are widely expected to result in a rubber-stamp assembly supportive of el-Sissi, who urged Egyptians to vote in a televised address Saturday. A low turnout would indicate growing disillusionment or distrust of the political system under his rule.

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail was quoted by the official Middle East News Agency as saying turnout in Sunday’s voting was between 15 and 16 per cent. Some half-dozen judges interviewed by The Associated Press on Monday gave roughly the same figure. Ismail did not say what he based his figures on and there was no way to independently confirm them.

The figures given by officials, however, appeared to be much higher than the extensive coverage by local and regional TV news networks would suggest. State media has acknowledged that turnout was generally weak on Sunday.

Associated Press reporters who toured polling centres across Giza on Sunday and Monday said that, unlike in previous elections held since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, there were no long lines.

Most of those casting ballots were women or elderly people, and only a slow trickle of voters could be seen at polling centres in Giza.

The decision to give government workers a half-day off on Monday reflected deep concern over the turnout, which analysts and observers have said may not exceed 10 per cent. The state-owned Al-Ahram daily said the government urged private businesses to ensure employees are able to get off work and vote.

Private broadcaster CBC aired simultaneous live footage from 16 polling centres in various parts of the country that were mostly empty. The channel ran advertisements between segments appealing to Egyptians to go out and vote.

In the coastal province of Alexandria, public transport was to be free from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to encourage a bigger turnout, according to a statement from Governor Hany el-Messiry’s office.

“We were expecting more than this. This is our country, and we have to stand by it,” said retiree Fatima Salam at a polling centre in Dokki, Giza. “Unfortunately the youth aren’t coming out. Us old people are.”

Many voters said they feel disconnected from the candidates.

“Before the elections, we see their posters. After the elections, we may see them on television, but we will never see them on the street,” Thanaa Taher, a 45-year-old engineer, said outside a polling station in Giza.

“No one is going to take time out of their day to go vote for the same people who did nothing or people who never even spoke to them,” said retired social worker Farouq Ali. When asked why he was voting, he responded: “What else can one do?”

The next parliament is widely expected to support el-Sissi, who is struggling to revive the economy, crush an Islamist insurgency and play an assertive political and military role in a turbulent Middle East. Such a chamber would harken back to the Mubarak era, when elections during his 29-year rule were rigged or manipulated to give his National Democratic Party an overwhelming majority in what amounted to rubber-stamp legislatures.

“There must be an opposition. A parliament doesn’t work without opposition,” Madiha Mohammed Tawfik, a 65-year-old accountant said outside another polling centre in Giza.

In southern Egypt, politics is dominated by powerful tribal leaders who help provide security and resolve local disputes.

“The elections are a family affair here. The poor will continue to be poor,” said farmer Fouad Abu Amer from the province of Qena, who did not vote.

Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent columnist who supported the 2013 ouster of Morsi, the country’s first freely elected leader, lamented in an article Monday that little has changed in Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster, arguing that the “absence of politics” in the public sphere has left el-Sissi in sole charge of just about everything.

The low turnout, he argued, underlined the political apathy among Egyptians.

“We are back to the old, pre-January (2011) scene, when people saw no point in elections, parliament or democracy,” he wrote on the front page of the daily Al-Maqal. “This will take us to where it took the old (Mubarak) regime. Anyone who cannot see that is, without an iota of hesitation, blind.”

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