Just as Canadians headed to the polls to choose a new federal government this week, a decidedly different kind of election was taking place halfway around the world – with decidedly different results.
Following years of governmental turmoil, the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections began on Sunday. The election, which concludes late next month, will give the country its first working parliament since 2012.
The last time Egyptians elected a parliament, in the euphoric days following the Arab Spring revolution, more than half the country turned up at the polls. This time around, however, the prevailing atmosphere surrounding the election – after years of violence, economic stagnation and political chaos – is not one of optimism, but fatigue.
The election of a new parliament serves both a functional and symbolic purpose. Functionally, the new elections would finally allow Egyptians to select the makeup of their parliament for the first time since former president Mohamed Morsi was deposed in a popular coup in 2013 – and, at least in theory, provide an important institutional counterbalance in a country that has been run solely according to the orders of authoritarian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Symbolically, the parliamentary elections serve an even more vital purpose – namely, projecting an image of stability at a time when many parts of Egypt, especially the Sinai Peninsula, are caught in a chaotic war between government forces and Islamist militants. A functioning parliament would show not only that the country is stable enough to hold large-scale elections, but that Egypt's population remains politically engaged enough to care.
In one of several speeches encouraging Egyptians to participate (more than 50 million are eligible to vote), Mr. al-Sisi urged the electorate to "plant the hope for a bright tomorrow" with their votes.
"I expect the youth of Egypt to be the drivers of this celebration of democracy," he said.
So far, however, Mr. al-Sisi's expectations have proven wildly optimistic. Early voting numbers were reportedly as low as 2 per cent in some parts of the country, with youth voting rates especially dismal. The number put forward by senior government officials was between 15 and 16 per cent. (Some government officials have also decried reporting on the low voter turnout as part of a conspiracy among Western media to undermine the country's democratic process.)
A plethora of factors have kept many Egyptians from the polls – the looming threat of violence being one. More than 300,000 soldiers and police officers have been dispatched to watch over the election, which comes at a time of increasing violence by radical Islamists in many parts of the country. In the city of Fayoum, a hour's drive south of Egypt, an improvised bomb was found and defused near a polling station on the first day of voting.
Voter confusion likely also played a role in the low turnout. Egyptians are voting for 596 members of parliament – the most in the 150-year history of the institution. And with many major opposition groups having been banned, and their central figures in jail or in exile, many of the people running for office are not particularly well-known.
But more than any other factor, apathy appears to be the main reason for the underwhelming election turnout. This is the third time since 2010 that Egyptians have been asked to vote for a new parliament – since that time, the country has undergone a series of cataclysmic events, from the 2011 Arab Spring revolution to the first free presidential election in the nation's history in 2012, to the overthrow of the man who won that election a year later.
Since that time, the parliament itself has been, in many ways, pre-emptively neutered. A law passed by Mr. al-Sisi last year reserves three-quarters of the institution's seats for candidates running as individuals – a move that puts Egypt's fledgling opposition parties at a distinct disadvantage. The country's most significant opposition group – the Muslim Brotherhood – has already been deemed an illegal entity, much of its leadership having fled the country or facing stiff jail sentences or the death penalty.
The government has struggled to boost voting rates, ordering businesses to give employees a half-day off to vote, and in some parts of the country arranging free transportation to the polling stations. Technically, there exists a law that allows the government to fine those who refrain from voting about $80. However, no such fines have ever been issued, and millions of Egyptians likely wouldn't have the money to pay them.
In a month's time, the second round of elections will begin, finally cementing the membership of the country's parliament, which is expected to convene in December. In the meantime, many Egyptians have taken to social media, posting sarcastic Tweets under the hashtag "#instead_of_voting," offering up ideas for other, more useful things to do.
Amidst the jokes, the posts point to a kind of exhausted exasperation among a populace that has lived through more than four years of revolutions, elections, un-elections and authoritarian regimes – a resigned suspicion that, under the rule of a military strongman, the country's parliament is unlikely to wield any tool other than a rubber stamp.