CAIRO // Egyptian embassies abroad will count absentee ballots today for the second round of parliamentary elections after polls closed yesterday. Their numbers will be added to the votes cast within Egypt tomorrow and Thursday.
Of the estimated eight million Egyptians abroad, 350,000 registered to cast absentee ballots in the first free elections since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president in February.
About 190,000 Egyptian expatriates participated in the first round of legislative polls, according to Al Ahram newspaper. More than 6,500 candidates are running from more than 45 political parties for 498 seats in the parliament.
Walid Kazziha, a political-science professor at the American University in Cairo, said in an email that due to the relatively small number of registered voters overseas, their effect on the election in which 9.7 million ballots were cast for the party lists in the first round, was "irrelevant".
But Osama Diab, an Egyptian journalist and graduate student in the UK who voted as an absentee, was quick to disagree with that assessment.
"The whole idea behind free and fair elections is that every vote counts, let alone more than 300,000 votes," said Mr Diab. "It is a considerable vote bloc and some parties are already trying to capture that."
As they represent at least 6 per cent of the country's population, Egyptians living abroad, if mobilised, could become an important bloc in future elections.
Mr Diab, a dual passport holder, represents the voters that secular parties - such as the Free Egyptians party, part of the liberal Egyptian Bloc, are hoping to attract: educated, middle class, and concerned with the future of the country.
Still, the liberals have their work cut out for them, the Egyptian Bloc earned only 16 per cent of the available seats in the November 28 round of polls, held in nine governorates. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party got 48 per cent of seats, while the Salafi Al Nour came in second with nearly 25 per cent.
About a month before the start of the parliamentary elections, an Egyptian court ruled citizens living overseas were eligible to vote, one of the demands of protesters in Tahrir Square.
According to Mr Diab, the right to vote is the first step for Egyptians abroad, and in general, towards claiming their civil rights.
"Successive governments have always treated Egyptians abroad as less Egyptian," he said, adding that Egyptians holding dual nationality have long been excluded from running for parliament and the presidency, as well as joining the police force and army.
To register, expatriates must have their national identification number, and prove that they are legal residents of the country they are voting from. This excludes the thousands of Egyptians working abroad illegally.
Despite constraints, expatriates said their right to vote is a cornerstone in the country's transition to democracy.
"We can refine [the absentee voting process] later on. If we hadn't gotten it into action now, I believe it would take another decade before we'd see it," said Islam Badr, an IT consultant living in South Africa.