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Listless turnout on first day of Egypt poll

Egyptians largely stayed away from the polls Sunday in the first phase of a parliamentary election that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hailed as a milestone for Egypt's democracy. Critics, however, branded it a sham.

Many polling stations saw meagre numbers of voters on Sunday's first day of voting with a projected turnout as low as 10 percent, in sharp contrast to the long lines that formed in the previous election in 2012, suggesting that President el-Sissi is losing public support.

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Parliamentary elections in Egypt underway

The first round of the election began Sunday in 14 governorates and continues through Monday. The other 13 governorates will vote in November. The staggered vote, continuing through December, will give Egypt its first elected legislature in more than three years.

Authorities urged the private sector to "facilitate" voting for their employees and give public sector workers a half-day off Monday to vote. But as most of the more than 5,000 candidates overwhelmingly support el-Sissi the result appears to be a foregone conclusion: a rubberstamp parliament subservient to the strongman president.

Suez Kanal Eröffnung Präsident Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Ägypten

El-Sissi has crushed dissent after deposing the elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013

"The election is a farce. I don't think anyone in Egypt is taking it seriously," Muslim Brotherhood official Wafaa Hefny told Reuters on Sunday.

"This parliament will be a parliament of the president," said Hazem Hosny, a political science professor at Cairo University, in an interview with Agence France-Presse. "It's really a parliament... to keep things as they are, to give an image of democracy."

Seeking to bolster his legitimacy, el-Sissi addressed the nation Saturday urging Egypt's 55 million eligible voters to go to the polls.

"Celebrate the choice of representatives and make the right choice," he said. "I am expecting Egyptian youth to be the driving force in this celebration of democracy."

But Cairo resident Islam Ahmed told AFP that he was unmoved and said he wasn't taking part in the vote.

"I think the turnout will be low. I don't know any candidate in my constituency... many people don't know candidates in their constituencies," he said.

Sumaya Saleh, a pharmacy sales assistant who works near an Imbaba polling station but is abstaining from the vote, said the election is pointless.

"The only people voting are the rich or the ignorant," she told the Associated Press. "The former because parliament will serve their interests and the latter because they just do whatever they are told to do."

Of the 596 lawmakers being elected, 448 will be voted in as independents, 120 on party lists and 28 will be presidential appointees.

The main coalition, the pro-el-Sissi For the Love of Egypt, includes leading businessmen and former members of the pre-Arab Spring dominant National Democratic Party. It aims to win two-thirds of the seats.

The openly pro-el-Sissi Salafist Al-Nur party, which backed the 2013 ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, the country's first freely-elected president, is the only Islamist party running.

Military coup leader silencing dissent

Following Morsi's ouster, el-Sissi, Egypt's former army chief, launched the deadliest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history.

Egypt has had no parliament since June 2012 when a court dissolved the democratically-elected main chamber, then dominated by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. That had reversed a key accomplishment of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime strongman leader Hosni Mubarak.

At least on paper, the new parliament will have wide ranging powers. It can reject the president's choice for prime minister or even impeach the president. But with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and youth activists among Egypt's 40,000 political prisoners, critics doubt it can provide checks and balances.

Final results will be announced in early December and the new house will hold its inaugural session shortly thereafter.

There were no official or reliable figures available on Sunday's turnout. State media reports suggested while turnout was low in the morning, large numbers of voters cast ballots in the afternoon.

Fearing attacks by Islamic militants to disrupt the vote, tens of thousands of police and soldiers were deployed to secure the election, many of whom were in full combat gear and body armor.

Since taking office after a landslide election win 16 months ago, el-Sissi has tried to revive Egypt's ailing economy, suppress an Islamic insurgency and assume a greater political and military role in a turbulent Middle East - all while silencing opposition at home and governing without the restraint of checks and balances.

Restrictions on demonstrations have all but killed street activism, while human rights abuses by police go mostly unpunished and authorities have shown little concern over recent disappearances of young pro-democracy or Brotherhood-linked activists.

jar/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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