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CAIRO – Egypt is gearing up for parliamentary elections, the second since the 2011 uprising. But with the once-triumphant Muslim Brotherhood now banned from public life and a new military-backed government suppressing public expression, analysts and activists say the next legislature is likely to be a rubber-stamp body that further solidifies the power of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Political parties — those that are eligible to run — are weak with little popular following. They are hurt even more by the law governing how the election will be run. And there is a general atmosphere against any politician raising criticism, with many Egyptians seeking stability after nearly four years of turmoil that has devastated the economy.
"There's hostility to the idea of a politically active society in general. All forms of political collective action have been either made illegal or have been simply dubbed unpatriotic," said Ziad Akl, an analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
All the country's media, he said, demonizes the idea of opposition "as a form of disunity."
A date for elections has not been set after repeated delays, though the Presidency on Monday said they would be in the first quarter of next year. Egypt's government on Wednesday is discussing a political districting law, which is needed for preparations to start.
The vote will mark the final step in what was billed as a transition to democracy, but what critics see as the rapid retrenchment of authoritarian rule less than four years after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a pro-democracy uprising.
The 2011 election saw candidates from across the political spectrum, from ultra-conservative Islamists to leftwing youths, vying for seats. Egyptians stood in line for hours to cast their votes — many for the first time in their lives — and the Muslim Brotherhood won the legislature's largest bloc.
This time around, the Brotherhood is banned as a terrorist group — a designation it denies — and many of its top leaders are in jail. A new law that requires prior permits for demonstrations has all but crushed street politics and civil society fears increasing restrictions.
The restrictions prompted the Carter Center — an international democracy promotion group led by former President Jimmy Carter — to close its Cairo office, saying the upcoming vote is "unlikely to advance a genuine democratic transition."
Egypt has not had a parliament since a court decision dissolved the legislating lower house in 2012 on a technicality, just days before the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected president.
After massive protests against his yearlong presidency, Morsi was ousted by el-Sissi, then military chief, who vowed to right Egypt's troubled democratic transition. Since then, authorities have cracked down on Morsi's supporters, killing hundreds in street clashes and arresting nearly 20,000 people. The wave of arrests has also netted non-Islamist activists who were at the forefront of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.
Since el-Sissi was elected in May in a vote boycotted by the Brotherhood, he has passed laws by executive decree, while solidifying his influence over state institutions.
Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the center-left Dostour party, said his group is spending most of its time trying to get 11 of its members released from prison after they were arrested at protests.
"Instead of working in politics and trying to build a constituency for elections, I'm running after them in police stations," he said.
Political parties are heavily disadvantaged by the election law, passed by decree last year. It allows party lists to contest just 20 percent of the 567 seats. The list that wins a simple majority will take all the seats in each district, making things tougher for small parties.
Nearly 75 percent of the assembly is reserved for candidates running as individuals, races in which prominent, wealthy local figures have the best chance. Moreover, individuals can form a slate and run against parties for the list seats. Another 5 percent will be appointed by the president, a measure meant to give seats to underrepresented minorities.
The result, opposition activists say, will be a parliament dominated by well-connected businessmen and one or two parties loyal to el-Sissi.
"People can control these elections with money or with family ties," said Bassem Kamel, a leading member of the Social Democratic Party. "It's the worst election law in the world." But, he said, parties have no choice but to "play according to their rules."
"This is a survival election," Dawoud said. "If we don't get into this election and win a number of seats, our parties will disappear. That's really my main fear."
In the statement announcing their office closure, the Carter Center pointed to "restrictions on democratic freedoms," which it said mean that public debate is limited and that campaigning could be "difficult — and possibly dangerous — for critics of the regime."
The government's supporters reject those characterizations, insisting the field is wide open for anyone who wants to compete. El-Sissi is not a member of any party and portrays himself as being above the fray.
"If the president is with a party, then that party will take all the privileges. That party will be number one ... and he doesn't want that," said Sameh Seif al-Yazal, a retired general close to el-Sissi.
Al-Yazal says he plans to run on a list put together by a Mubarak-era prime minister that is made up of "real Egyptians," including former government ministers, a pro-government television personality and a former Supreme Court justice.
"I think because (political parties) are weak they want everything easy for them," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "You have to go through the battle and prove to the people, prove to the government, prove to the president, prove to the Egyptians that, yes, you can do it."
Critics say secular democratic parties in Egypt, most formed since 2011, have failed to unite or work to build constituencies.
But Dawoud said the current atmosphere makes it difficult for fledgling parties to grow.
In the coming election, he fears, the only real competition will be "in expressing loyalty to el-Sissi."