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H.A. Hellyer is non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.


Egyptians are going to the polls this week for the eighth time in four years, 10 if you count run-off votes.

The most blatant characteristic this time around appears to be rather unedifying: an abundant lack of interest in the formal exercise of democratic process.

The previous parliamentary elections in 2011 were welcomed with enthusiasm and excitement, but these elections, in a country that has been without a legislature for three years, are viewed in completely the opposite fashion – amid tedium and apathy.

Voter response so far is abysmal, and that might be one of the most interesting parts of this election altogether.

The turnout is terribly low – the first day of voting on Sunday saw about 15-per-cent turnout – and no one, including the state itself, is claiming otherwise.

In 2011's parliamentary election the overall turnout was 54 per cent. So wouldn't a low turnout in 2015 for the 596-seat chamber be counterproductive to the state's desire to portray Egypt as resuming the path of democracy, after the suspension of the democratic process in 2013?

Surely the government must need a high turnout to be reported, so it can insist that all the criticisms made of it by international and Egyptian human rights groups are unfounded.

Well, not really.

Cairo has already succeeded in becoming accepted thoroughly on the international stage. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has spoken at the United Nations twice; Egypt now has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council; and European leaders have visited Egypt. As well, Mr. el-Sissi has visited several European capitals and will head to London in November.

Egypt's rather abysmal human-rights record notwithstanding – and there are many legitimate and genuine critiques to be made in that regard – Cairo is not a pariah state on the international stage. It does not require a big turnout in parliamentary elections to push forward on that score.

On the contrary, the leadership in Cairo might view a low turnout quite positively.

Obviously, in any healthy democracy, voter turnout ought to be high to establish a level of popular legitimacy for any representative body that should be able to challenge and hold to account the executive.

But Egypt is patently not a healthy democracy, and the President has shown on a number of occasions that he views parliament as potentially possessing powers that it ought not to exercise in a time of "crisis," such as what Egypt is currently going through in its "war on terror."

A low turnout, therefore, may be just what the doctor ordered from Cairo's perspective. That's because a lower turnout than in the May, 2014, presidential vote – in which 47 per cent of voters cast a ballot, more than 95 per cent of them for Mr. el-Sissi – would allow for the argument that Egyptians are far more supportive of their President than they are a bunch of squabbling politicians in parliament.

The level of fragmentation that is likely to ensue in this incoming parliament will certainly lend credence to that argument.

Alas, none of this means that the critical reforms in terms of fundamental rights, the economy and the security sector, which are necessary for Egypt to be truly sustainable and healthy, are likely to begin any time soon.