CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians turned out in low numbers on Sunday to vote in the first phase of an election hailed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a milestone on the road to democracy but shunned by critics who say the new chamber will rubber stamp his decisions.
Young Egyptians who boycotted the election seemed deeply disillusioned with politics, while elderly people who support Sisi comprised a large number of the people who did vote.
People in their 20s and 30s expressed serious doubt that the new parliament would challenge Sisi, who as army chief toppled Egypt’s first freely-elected president in 2013 then launched the fiercest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history.
Egypt has had no parliament since June 2012 when a court dissolved the democratically-elected main chamber, then dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, reversing a key accomplishment of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Sisi, the latest man from the military to rule Egypt, ousted elected president Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood after mass protests against him.
Many of the young secular activists at the forefront of the 2011 uprising that deposed Mubarak have also found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Visits by Reuters correspondents to polling stations showed light turnout throughout the day, in contrast to the long lines that formed at the last election in 2012.
In a polling station in the Cairo district of Dokki, judge Mohamed Ra’fat said turnout was at 10 percent.
“The highest turnout is among the elderly while the youth are not coming out to vote,” said Ra’fat in the early evening, when traffic at polling stations is normally heaviest.
Young Egyptians boycotting the polls were cynical in a country where half the rapidly-growing population is under 25.
“It’s not going to matter. It’s just for show, to show that we are a democracy, and we have elections, and blah blah blah any nonsense,” said Ahmed Mostafa, 25, who works in a lab.
Ahmed Ibrahim, a 34-year-old accountant, had a similar view.
“The youth in Egypt, our ambition in 2011, we were going to build the country – but then suddenly it was stolen from us,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of my friends are not going to vote.”
Security was tight in a country facing an Islamist militant insurgency, in addition to widespread poverty, high unemployment and an energy crisis.
On paper, the new parliament will have wide ranging powers. It can reject the president’s choice for prime minister or even impeach the president.
But with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and youth activists behind bars, critics doubt it can provide checks and balances.
“The election is a farce. I don’t think anyone in Egypt is taking it seriously,” Muslim Brotherhood official Wafaa Hefny told Reuters.
Few analysts expect turnout to exceed a third of the electorate.
Sisi secured support from other opposition groups for ousting Mursi by promising a prompt parliamentary vote. The elections, repeatedly postponed, are now taking place over two rounds on Oct 18-19 and Nov 22-23.
This week, voters cast their ballots in 14 regions including Egypt’s second city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast.
Critics say an electoral system that puts the emphasis on individuals is a throwback to Mubarak-era politics, which favoured candidates with wealth and connections.
“Being a member of parliament for many is a chance to be close to government. It’s like joining the government club,” said Khaled Dawoud, who recently resigned as spokesman for the Destour Party and Democratic Current electoral alliance.
The unicameral parliament will comprise 568 elected members - 448 elected on an individual basis and 120 through winner-takes-all lists in four districts, with quotas for women, Christians and youth. The president may also appoint a further five percent. Final results expected in December.
“For the Love of Egypt”, an alliance of loyalist parties and politicians, is running for all 120 list seats and is expected to do well.
An alliance of socialist opposition parties that had been due to contest eventually pulled out, leaving the field dominated by Sisi loyalists.
The Islamist Nour Party, which came second in the last election, will take part. However, it has lost much support among Islamists since endorsing Mursi’s overthrow.
Speculation is already rife that the constitution will be amended to curb parliament’s powers.
“There’s no one running who is worth my vote - everyone who enters the elections just wants something out of it for their personal interest,” said Tamer Mohamed, 35, who owns a motorcycle shop. “Nobody wants to do anything for people.”
Writing and additional reporting by Lin Noueihed and Michael Georgy, Editing by Adrian Croft and Gareth Jones