Egyptians are voting Monday in Egypt to elect members of the upper house of parliament, known as the Shura (consultative) Council. In the only serious incident of violence, a man was killed outside a polling station in the Nile Delta during a dispute between supporters of two candidates. As Challiss McDonough reports from Cairo, early turnout was extremely light amid widespread voter apathy.
In most districts, turnout early in the day was light, as expected for an election that few Egyptians have shown much interest in.
The Shura Council is a consultative body, and until recently had no legislative authority. But recent constitutional amendments have expanded the body's role in approving some legislation.
And this is the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood is participating in Shura Council elections. The officially banned group holds one fifth of the seats in the lower house of parliament, and its candidates run for office as independents.
Josh Stacher teaches political science at the British University in Egypt. He says despite widespread voter apathy, there is more at stake in this Shura Council election than in previous ones.
"There is something at stake," said Stacher. "These elections took on a much larger significance after the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in the parliamentary elections in 2005."
"By capturing 20 percent of the seats, they fulfilled a requirement that they could nominate a presidential candidate, seeing if they could get 14 percent in the Shura Council elections. So it's actually the first time in many years, probably since there were elections for the Shura Council under the Mubarak presidency, that these elections actually have meant something," he continued.
Even so, voter interest in the poll is low, and turnout is not expected to exceed 10 percent.
The Brotherhood is fielding only 19 candidates. The ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, tried to have most of them thrown off the ballot. The NDP said the Brotherhood's campaign slogan, "Islam is the solution," violates the constitutional ban on political activity based on religion. But a court on Sunday rejected the move and so the Islamist candidates remain on the ballots.
Police have arrested more than 700 of the Muslim Brotherhood's members over the last several months, many of them in the last few weeks since the election campaign began.
"The government has sent a pretty clear message that it doesn't want the Muslim Brotherhood or any people that could come out and potentially support the Muslim Brotherhood to be participating in this sort of election," said Stacher. "And as a consequence, you have an election where there's only one party that's really allowed to functionally run and compete, then it's not much of a contest."
There are 88 seats up for grabs, and more than 580 candidates competing for them. Two of the main secular opposition parties are boycotting the poll. The ruling NDP is fielding 109 candidates, and many of the independent candidates are also affiliated with the party, meaning that the vast majority of the races pit ruling party candidates against other members of the same party.
Stacher says that, plus the ruling party's lack of real grassroots support, helps explain the voters' lack of interest.
"So this explains why nobody's going to go to the polling stations and vote, because it's essentially a very exclusive game among a bunch of elites connected to the state rather than general political trends competing peacefully in some sort of electoral contest," he said.
There are 264 seats in the Shura Council. One third of them are appointed, and the remaining 176 are directly elected. Members serve six-year terms, and so half of the seats are up for election or appointment every three years.