Four years on from the revolution that brought down the government of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are electing a new parliament from a list of candidates dominated by Mubarak-era figures and supporters of a new strongman, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The outcome of the election, a two-round process that extends into November, is all but certain: a pro-Sisi parliament likely to endorse decrees he has issued over the past year that are seen as strengthening the state and weakening civil rights.
But beyond support for Mr. Sisi’s decrees, at stake in the elections is the former general’s goal of introducing constitutional reforms to bolster the presidency and his hold on power. He can secure those aims if he wins a two-thirds majority in parliament.
In the first parliamentary elections held months after the January 2011 revolution, 10,251 candidates from across the political spectrum ran in a vibrant contest that saw a 52 percent turnout. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood won a plurality in a politically diverse body.
The political mood now could not be more different.
In the capital, election banners and ads are few and far between. Around half the number of 2011 candidates, some 5,400, are competing for 568 seats.
The vast majority of the 18 political parties and coalitions have been quick to name-drop Sisi, who is a political independent, pledging to support the president in a time of “national difficulty.”
Some 40 percent of candidates are former members of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), according to a study by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“The coming parliament is likely to see mass representation from business interests and former NDP networks,” says H. A. Hellyer, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
One of the most important tasks for the upcoming parliament will be to consider the 175-odd decrees and temporary laws issued by Sisi in parliament’s absence. The decrees – issued after the military dissolved parliament in 2013 in support of a high court ruling – include an anti-terror law, laws allowing the military trial of citizens, and even a law granting the president powers to dismiss students and staff at the Islamic Al Azhar University.
Despite the high volume of decrees and their wide impact on daily life, under the Constitution the newly elected lawmakers will have only 15 days from the opening of parliament to either ratify or dismiss them.
Candidates from multiple parties say there will be little debate.
“This parliament will be very supportive of the president and his legislative agenda – there will be no conflicts there,” says Safwat al-Anhas, outgoing secretary general of the Egyptian National Movement. Founded by Mubarak’s former premier, Ahmed Shafiq, it is one of the major pro-military parties running in the polls.
Yet observers and candidates alike say Sisi will likely be eyeing more than a simple majority in parliament to uphold his decrees.
Should Sisi loyalists reach the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments, the president can embark on a series of changes hinted at in recent speeches, such as transferring the power to approve governments from the parliament to the president. Another proposed change is taking away parliament’s power to withdraw confidence from the president and call for early presidential elections.
“The Constitution gave the parliament broad powers, with good intentions,” Sisi said in a speech in September in which he described the Constitution as “flawed.” “But the country cannot be run on good intentions.”
Egypt’s opposition has been largely silent in the run-up to the election, with Sisi supporters’ electoral victory appearing all but inevitable.
In mid-September, the leading center-left coalition representing more than a dozen liberal parties and pro-revolutionary forces withdrew from the polls in protest over a stipulation by the High Electoral Committee compelling candidates to undergo official, $363 medical checks.
With the Muslim Brotherhood banned by the country’s anti-terror law, the gap has been filled by the Nour Party, the political branch of ultra-conservative Salafists, who are seeking strict conservative social reforms.
The party is looking to capitalize on its surprise showing in 2011, in which it captured 107 seats and formed the second-largest parliamentary bloc.
The party has gone out of its way to downplay any differences with Sisi supporters and the state, and analysts say Salafists are looking to become a conservative ally of Sisi, a relationship that may see the president grant “concessions” on social issues in return for their support.
“Salafists are vying for power, and will likely receive conservative policies to satiate them,” says Adel Abdel Ghafar, Egypt analyst and fellow at Brookings Institute’s Doha Center.
But with their ultra-conservative Islamic rhetoric, Nour Party candidates may drive concerned citizens and secularists to vote for the alternative: pro-Sisi groups.
“It is a win-win situation for the state and a lose-lose situation for the Egyptian people,” says Wael Eskander, a prominent Egyptian blogger and activist.