Egypt sets parliamentary poll dates as Sisi cements grip

CAIRO (TIP): Egypt said January Thursday it is to hold parliamentary elections from March 21 but analysts said the new legislature will offer no meaningful opposition to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s iron-fisted rule.

The elections, which will be held in phases culminating on May 7, will be the first since Sisi overthrew his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013.

But with Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood crushed in a crackdown that has left hundreds dead and even secular opposition groups hit by jail terms, the elections are likely to be dominated by Sisi loyalists.

“It is difficult to see there being much in the way of opposition on issues relating to governance and human rights from within any new parliament in this current environment,” said H. A. Hellyer of Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

The vote will be held under a complex electoral system that was originally designed to produce as representative a parliament as possible.

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Some of the 567 seats will be contested on nationwide party lists. Others will be fought on a first-past-the post basis in individual constituencies, where second-round runoffs will be held where necessary.

But critics say the process has been emptied of meaning now that the main opposition groups have been outlawed. The top leaders of the once dominant Muslim Brotherhood are all on trial on charges that could carry the death penalty. Even verbal expressions of support have been punishable by heavy jail terms since the movement was declared a terrorist organisation in December 2013.

Tough restrictions on the right to protest have also seen several secular leaders of the Arab Spring uprising that toppled veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011 sent to prison.

“The president has crushed his political opposition with military force and not political. We are witnessing a political scene that cannot produce any opposition to the president,” said Ahmed Abdel Rabu, professor of political science at University of Cairo.

Sisi remains popular among the many Egyptians who applaud his pledge to restore order after four years of political turmoil and economic chaos.

The Arab world’s most populous nation has been hit by a mounting wave of violence by jihadist groups since Morsi’s ouster that the former army chief has vowed to crush with a rod of iron.

It is a rhetoric that most candidates are likely to emulate as they seek to win election to parliament on Sisi’s coattails.

“The parliamentary hopefuls are already using the language of his regime, such as regaining the state’s prestige and war on terrorism,” said Abdel Rabu.

But the polls are important to Sisi as he seeks to cement a thaw in relations with Western governments that had condemned his overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president.

The United States delivered 10 Apache helicopters last month after lifting part of a freeze on aid as mounting turmoil across the region underlined Egypt’s importance as an ally.

The United States annually allocates some $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, including $1.3 billion in military assistance.

That was frozen in October 2013 pending the enactment of democratic reforms.

After ousting Morsi, Sisi announced a political roadmap that envisaged adopting a new constitution, to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections, and Western governments have called on him to see it through.

The new constitution, which expanded the powers of the military, was adopted in a January 2014 referendum with a 98 percent yes vote.

The presidential election, which Sisi won with 97 percent of the vote on a 47 percent turnout, was held in May.

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