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Middle East

Egypt's parliamentary polls peter out

For three years Egyptians waited for the chance to elect a new legislative branch, but when the final phase of voting came to an end on Wednesday, there was little suspense.

Pro-government candidates dominated the first two rounds, Islamist parties were absent and voter turnout was low. When runoffs began this month, even fewer turned out to cast votes. So, in the final days polling stations were bare.

"Complete silence at polling stations in Beni Suef City," read a headline in Egyptian newspaper Youm7 after the first day of run-off elections, showing pictures of deserted polling stations.

Now, as the new parliament dominated by wealthy businessmen, former security officials and Egypt's old guard prepares to convene before the end of the year, critics say the body will be little more than a rubber stamp on authoritarian rule.

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Will anything change in Egypt?

While results from the remaining electoral run-offs that took place this week continued to come in, official results from earlier rounds showed that supporters of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had swept the polls.

In the absence of a political party, "For the Love of Egypt," a pro-Sissi electoral list led by former security officer Sameh Seif Elyazal swept all list seats, winning a total of 120 seats.

Official results released by Egypt's High Elections Commission also showed businessmen would make up to 25 percent of the parliament. Former party members of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party also made a comeback in the elections, with 80 former parliamentarians from the party winning new seats.

The 2015 parliament also includes 75 police and army officers, the largest number of former security members in the history of Egyptian parliaments.

police, soldiers on a street Reuters/A.A. Dalsh

The police and army have always played a major role in Egyptian politics

To Sissi with love

Seif Elyazal, the "For the Love of Egypt" leader, announced last weekend that he would form the first parliamentary bloc called the "Pro-Egyptian State Coalition," a majority parliamentary bloc aimed at defending Sissi's policies.

"In any parliament in the world, in any country anywhere, one party that gets over 50 percent has to lead the parliament, in order to ... push the parliament in the right direction, from the view of that party," said Seif Elyazal in an interview with DW, as to why he was forming the bloc.

Since his election in June 2014, Sissi has held legislative powers in the absence of a parliament and passed hundreds of laws by presidential decree. In 2012, an Egyptian court dissolved the country's parliament that had been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood which swept elections following the 2011 revolution.

The government has touted the election of the new parliament as an important step in the country's transition following the military ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood group has since been labeled a terrorist organization and banned from elections. The formation of a pro-government bloc has sparked criticism that the chamber will turn into a rubber-stamp parliament.

Power over parliament

"All of this is to obtain power over the parliament in order to be able to vote in majority on orders received by telephone, under the control of security bodies," said Egyptian talk show host Ibrahim Eissa, last Sunday on his show on Al-Qahera Wal Nas channel, lashing out at "For the Love of Egypt." "Anyone claiming the opposite would be lying to the people."

Some parties also declined to join. "Our party is not intending to join this coalition, we will remain as a party with its own party and group in the parliament to achieve our electoral promises," Chehab Waguih, spokesman of the Free Egyptians party, told DW. The Free Egyptians Party, a liberal party founded by Egyptian billionaire and telecom mogul Naguib Sawiris, won the largest percentage of party seats but not enough to form a majority.

Waguih added that it was "too early to judge" whether or not a pro-government coalition within the parliament would have a negative effect on the parliament's ability to serve as a check on executive power.

two men standing opposite each other in a palace MENA via AP

Will parliament merely rubber-stamp Sissi's laws?

But despite the controversy, even elected members of government who were critical of the bloc were sure to state their support for the current government, highlighting what many say is a lack of true opposition in the parliament.

"It will look like a new Mubarak-style ruling party with Elyazal looking like another Ahmed Ezz but in a different form," said Mortada Mansour, the controversial chairman of Cairo's Zamalek sporting club who won a seat in the parliament, at a press conference. Mansour was referring to the business tycoon who acted as Mubarak's parliamentary whip.

Lack of debate, widespread apathy

As the parliament looks set to fall in line with the president, observers and analysts say the election results are the product of a lack of competition and debate, widespread apathy and an electoral law set up for the prominent and wealthy to win.

Still, while most believe the parliament will not pose a threat to the executive, it could choose to flex its power.

"In some ways it will be a return to the past - the regime has nothing fundamental to fear from this parliament," Nathan J. Brown, a scholar of Middle Eastern law and politics at George Washington University, told DW. "In some ways it is different from most Mubarak-era parliaments: there is no formal opposition that seems to be emerging; ideological parties are particularly weak; Islamists are all but absent. And there is no National Democratic party to organize the pro-government members."

Brown said from now on laws cannot be issued by presidential decree and a parliamentary majority will have to be mobilized. Other members could try to exercise power over members of cabinet that it will be required to approve.

"And of course, there is the library of decree-laws that Sissi has issued - all those will have to be reviewed by parliament immediately," said Brown. "It is unclear if the parliament will be totally supine or actually try to read the laws it is asked to approve."

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