x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Fewer people go to the polls in Egyptian run-off elections

Analysts worried that the low turnout represents growing apathy among voters towards a convoluted electoral process for both houses of parliament that will last until March.

CAIRO // Egyptians went to the polls in smaller-than-expected numbers yesterday in the first round of run-off elections for seats in parliament in the country's first democratic polls in 60 years.

Analysts were worried the low turnout, in contrast to the long lines of voters seen on the first day of voting in Cairo and eight other governorates on November 28, represented growing apathy among voters towards a convoluted electoral process for both houses of parliament that will last until March and would then be followed by a presidential election next year.

"It is a complicated system, and one that is very confusing for a lot of Egyptians," said Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"There are three rounds of voting and run-offs for each vote," she said. "If results are released, it will affect the rest of the elections. If they're not, people will suspect foul play."

Voting has been staggered over three phases for the lower house and three phases for the upper house because of logistical constraints.

Liberal and secular activists fear an Islamist takeover as Islamic parties have made heavy gains at the polls for the 498-seat lower house.

"Egyptians know already who stands to win: The Muslim Brotherhood, ex-regime types, and even the Salafis," Mrs Ottaway says, referring to the main Islamist group and the hardline Islamists who were new to the political scene but scored an upset victory by grabbing a quarter of the votes in the first round.

The run-off elections were being held for 52 individual candidate where there was no outright winner in last week's first round.

In some of Egypt's most cosmopolitan and populated areas, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Al Nour Party won most of the votes with a better-than-expected 52 per cent turnout, with only minor violations, the High Electoral Commission said.

The centrist FJP won about 37 per cent of the vote. Of the 52 run-off races on Monday and yesterday, only one did not include a candidate from either the FJP or Al Nour. Twenty-two were between FJP and Al Nour candidates.

Egypt has chosen to use a mixed single-candidate and party-list proportional representation system.

"The conditions are good for elections, and we really feel like it is the first time we have democracy in this country," said 32-year-old Al Nour supporter Ahmed Ashami in Alexandria. Egypt's second-largest city, on the Mediterranean coast, is a Salafi stronghold.

"I support Al Nour because they are fresh and honest," said Mr Ashami, who is a chemistry teacher. "They want to save the dignity of Islam."

While the FJP said it would not form a coalition government with Al Nour, Egypt's secularists fear the Islamists will together have substantial influence over the country's new constitution, to be written by the new parliament.

On current trends, Islamists could control about two-thirds of the new parliament.

"The protests in Tahrir, they were to stop the Islamists from coming to power," said Ahmed Mohaamed Safwat, 27, a college graduate from Alexandria.

Mr Safwat was referring to a week of protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square by liberal activists against the generals who took over power from Hosni Mubarak after a popular uprising in February.

Many protesters had vowed to boycott the vote, which they said should be implemented under a civilian administration.

Activists chided the Muslim Brotherhood for failing to join the mass protests, but the liberals were themselves trounced at the polls.

The Egyptian Bloc, the largest grouping of secular parties, received just 13 per cent of the vote in the first round. Al Wafd, a centre-right secular party, won about 9 per cent.

Analysts said the liberal parties had failed to mobilise their campaigns in the slums, where Islamist groups have been working for years and have built popular support and organisational strength.

"The liberal revolutionaries have not gotten beyond the stage of protests in the squares," says Joshua Stacher, a professor of Middle East politics at Kent State University in the United States.

"With the new parliament, and given the current rules, the Islamists and some of the old Mubarak guard are going to end up the winners and it will leave people disappointed," he said.

Still, perhaps the new and most important political relationship to watch was that between the FJP and Al Nour. The hardline Salafis have the potential to move FJP more to the right, with implications for women's rights, justice and Egypt's tenuous peace with Israel, analysts said.

"We may be different," said Adl Taha, a 42-year-old Al Nour party organiser of his party's relationship with the FJP. "But we're all Muslim."