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Egypt holds low-key Senate elections

Egyptians went to vote Tuesday for a new Senate in an upper house election seen as unlikely to revive vibrant political life under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

The two-day vote for 200 of the Senate’s 300 seats was largely contested by candidates backing Sisi, who has quietened most opposition within and outside the legislature.

The remaining 100 Senators will be appointed by Sisi, who was an army general when he took power following the 2013 ouster of elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on the back of mass protests against his brief rule.

The Senate vote is unlikely to revitalise “the already stagnant political scene in Egypt,” said Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University.

“It could be useful in terms of being a way to reward those backing Sisi.”

Billboards promoting little-known candidates have popped up across Cairo and other cities in recent weeks, and online videos have explained the Senate’s role and urged people to cast their ballots.

On Tuesday, voters were donning masks and queueing outside polling stations in Cairo and beyond. Some were shown in online videos waving the Egyptian flag as patriotic songs played in the background.

The Egyptian president, ministers and religious figures were filmed casting their ballots. But on social media, users poked fun at the elections, calling them “useless” and a “farcical charade”.

– Freedoms rolled back –

Under former president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in a 2011 popular uprising, the upper house was largely reserved for the elite and members of his now defunct National Democratic Party.

Then called the Shura Council, the chamber was temporarily abolished after Morsi’s ouster. But last year Egyptians overwhelmingly voted in favour of far-reaching constitutional amendments that included the reinstatement of the upper house.

The changes also could see Sisi’s rule extended until 2030, boosted his control over the judiciary and granted the army even greater influence in political life.

The vote is Egypt’s first amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and comes as official infection rates have generally dropped off in recent weeks.

Slight increases in daily COVID-19 infections have been recorded over the past week, but the figures remain below 200 cases of infections a day.

Results are expected on August 19. The chamber, where women are allotted at least 10 percent of seats, sits for a five-year term.

The Senate has few formal powers but “is tasked with examining and proposing what it sees as bolstering the pillars of democracy, supporting social peace and the fundamentals of the society.”

“The upper chamber’s opinions should be taken into consideration and have rarely been ignored in the legislative chamber’s history,” Egyptian lower house lawmaker Mohamed Abu Hamed told AFP.

“However, legally speaking, its opinions are non-binding,” he said.

The lower house has greater powers, but critics have long also decried the “rubber-stamp” role of the assembly which features only a small opposition bloc, known as 25/30.

Under Sisi, Egypt has launched a sweeping crackdown on Islamists, especially Morsi’s now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, but also leftist and secular activists, journalists and bloggers.

Heavy restrictions have been imposed on protests and critical websites blocked. Rights groups say freedoms gained in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak have largely been rolled back.

Michael Hanna, of the US-based The Century Foundation, commenting on what he characterised as Egypt’s stagnant politics, said bringing back the upper house is “peculiar in this politics-less setting”.

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