Egyptians are voting to elect a new parliament which critics say will just replicate a “rubber-stamp” body in place since 2015 under hardline President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
In the second national elections this year, the country will be electing 568 seats out of 596 in the lower house of parliament from Saturday.
The remaining deputies will be appointed by the army general-turned-president el-Sisi, whose government has over the years silenced any serious political opposition to its rule.
More than 4,500 candidates are running as independents and on lists of party alliances. They are widely seen as backers of el-Sissi, who has been governing Egypt since 2014.
Final results are not expected until mid-December.
Giant billboards have sprung up across the bustling capital, Cairo and elsewhere ahead of the vote that takes place on Saturday and Sunday.
And some candidates are campaigning online and have released video clips with songs to draw support.
But many of those running also stood for election five years ago in a political landscape marked by the presence of dozens of parties with little weight and influence on the ground.
The 2015 parliament was the first to come into office after the army, led by el-Sisi, deposed former leader Mohamed Morsi following widespread protests against the country’s first democratically elected civilian president.
“Parliament has become an apparatus attached to the executive authority with no real legislative authority,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University.
“It has almost never questioned any of the government’s policies or carried out any of the functions that parliaments normally do.”
Most of the candidates are fielded by a pro-government coalition led by the Mostakbal Watan party, or the “Nation’s Future Party”.
It includes top businessmen and public figures and has grown since 2014 to be one of the dominant political forces.
Earlier this week, its leader Abdelwahab Abdelrazek was named head of the Senate.
The October vote is the second to be held amid the COVID-19 pandemic which has so far infected more than 105,000 people and killed nearly 6,200 in the country.
In August, Egypt held elections for the newly restored 300-seat Senate in muted upper house elections marked by low voter turnout of about 14 percent.
The reinstatement of the upper house – which was abolished after Morsi’s removal – was among the constitutional amendments that Egyptians overwhelmingly voted for last year.
Other amendments included potentially extending el-Sisi’s rule until 2030, boosting his control over the judiciary and granting the army even greater influence in political life.
“The return of Senate was unnecessary, and parliament only serves as a facade of a legislative authority in Egypt,” said Saeed Sadiq, a professor of political sociology at Nile University.
He said he expected few among the the country’s 63 million eligible voters would cast their ballots this weekend.
Speaking from London, Wafik Moustafa, Chairman of the British Arab Network agreed that most people would not be taking part in the vote, explaining that the Egyptians had lost confidence in el-Sisi’s elections.
“People will be boycotting these elections because the parliament itself has no legislative power,” said Moustafa.
“It is a fake parliament that has never questioned the government,” he added.
Under el-Sisi authorities have cracked down on dissent, in a move which has ensnared journalists, online bloggers, lawyers and intellectuals.
Protests have been effectively banned under a restrictive 2013 law, and a state of emergency, which has been extended repeatedly, has been in place since 2017.
“The public space is only filled with movements, ideologies, and parties supportive of policies of the current ruling system,” said Nafaa.
“There is not a single sign showing that this climate allows for free and real elections.”