Egyptians have started voting for the Senate, the upper chamber of Parliament that was revived as part of constitutional amendments approved in a referendum last year, in an election that comes as the country faces an uptick in daily numbers of new coronavirus cases.
Authorities have said face masks would be handed out to voters and polling stations were disinfected in the run-up to the balloting to ease concerns amid the pandemic.
The vote is mostly a symbolic exercise as the Senate – unlike the House of Representatives, the lower chamber – has no legislative powers and will act mainly in an advisory role.
It replaces the Shura Council, which was dissolved in 2014.
Billboards promoting little-known candidates have popped up across the capital Cairo and other cities in recent weeks, and online videos have explained the Senate’s role and urged people to cast their ballots.
The balloting will extend for two days to allow for a maximum turnout with 63 million eligible voters who will choose two-thirds of the 300-member Senate, with 787 candidates running for those 200 Senate seats.
Egyptian expats voted on Sunday and Monday.
The first 100 seats in the running are reserved for individual candidates, the second for those running on a list dominated by pro-government parties. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will choose the remaining 100 members.
The results are expected within a week and the runoff will take place in September. Under the constitutional amendments approved last April, women will have a 25 percent quota in the chamber.
However, the Senate vote is unlikely to revitalise “the already stagnant political scene in Egypt”, according to Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University.
“It could be useful in terms of being a way to reward those backing Sisi,” he added.
Lasheen Ibrahim, chairman of the National Election Authority, called voting “a national duty” and warned in televised comments on Saturday that those who boycott the election could be fined up to 500 Egyptian pounds ($32) under an Egyptian law that has existed for years but was never really implemented.
The election comes despite an uptick in coronavirus cases this week.
Egypt, a country of more than 100 million people, has reported almost 96,000 cases with more than 5,000 related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Egypt’s latest constitutional amendments extended a president’s term in office from four to six years, allowing for a maximum of two terms.
But they also included a specific article extending el-Sisi’s current second four-year term to six years and allowing him to run for another six-year term in 2024 – potentially extending his rule until 2030.
In 2013, el-Sisi led the military overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. El-Sisi has since presided over an unprecedented crackdown on dissent.
Under el-Sisi, Egypt has launched a sweeping crackdown on the opposition, especially Morsi’s now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, as well as leftist and secular activists, journalists and bloggers.
Heavy restrictions have been imposed on protests and critical websites blocked. Rights groups say freedoms gained in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak have largely been rolled back.