A press conference held by a judicial electoral commission in charge of supervising Egypt's upcoming parliamentary polls took the country by surprise when it came short of setting a date for registration.
The commission, which announced on 8 January that the country's long-awaited polls will finally kick off on 21 March and end on 7 May, also said it has decided to postpone setting a date for registration.
According to Ayman Abbas, chairman of the Higher Elections Commission (HEC) – a seven-member judicial body mandated with supervising the polls – even though it is necessary for HEC to announce a complete and detailed timetable for the polls within one month, it decided it was enough at this stage just to announce the date of the vote.
"As for the date and rules of registration," said Abbas, "these will be announced in due time and in less than one month from now."
In reaction, political parties said they had high hopes that the HEC's press conference on 8 January would come with a complete timetable for the polls.
"This is the first time an election timetable comes short of a date for registration," said Mohamed Abdel-Alim, a former Wafd party MP, recalling that "in most, if not all, previous elections, electoral commissions were keen on issuing a complete timetable."
"This is necessary to help political parties prepare their lists of candidates in accordance with a clear-cut timetable," said Abdel-Alim, adding that "it is not good to announce part of the timetable and then complete it at a later stage with another part."
Nabil Zaki, a spokesperson for the leftist Tagammu party, also said he was surprised by HEC's decision not to provide a registration date.
"Does this mean they have still to coordinate with state authorities on this date or did they come under pressure to announce a part and then postpone another part?" asked Zaki.
Other political parties, by contrast, said they were not disappointed by HEC's lack of a registration date. "Knowing the registration date early is good but it is not crucial, especially after the vote day was announced," said Salah Hasaballah, deputy chairman of the liberal Congress party.
"Now you have 70 days until the vote is held and this is a good time for political parties to prepare," Hasaballah said..
Amr Hashem Rabie, a political analyst with Al-Ahram, said he believes that HEC's timetable for parliamentary polls, as announced on 8 January, was mainly designed to meet the country's security and political agenda. "It is most probable that HEC refused to announce the registration date at this stage for security reasons," said Rabie, also agreeing that "an incomplete timetable at this stage does not help political parties or independents prepare well for the polls."
Rabie and most political parties, however, agree that "announcing a timetable anyway sends a preliminary message that the government and president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi are serious about political reform and that they have nothing to fear from a powerful parliament."
Rabie notes that this is the first time a parliamentary election will be held over two stages. "Former autocratic president Hosni Mubarak had been forced by judicial rulings to hold three-stage polls since 2000, but in 2007 he changed the constitution to stop placing future polls under full judicial supervision, aiming to help his ruling party, led at that time by his younger son Gamal, to monopolise parliament," said Rabie, recalling that "in 2011, Mubarak paid a dear price after rigging of parliamentary polls at the end of 2010 led people to rise against him and oust him from office."
Rabie believes that HEC's decision to hold polls over two stages was mainly prompted by the fact that "the new electoral system stipulates that four constituencies be created to elect 120 party-based deputies."
"This will be in the form of two constituencies electing 90 deputies, or 45 each, and two constituencies electing 30 deputies or 15 each," explained Rabie.
As a result, Rabie said two constituencies, one electing 45 deputies and one electing 15, will be part of the first stage, while the remaining two constituencies, also with 45 and 15 deputies respectively, will be part of the second stage.
Rabie added that "it is true that the polls will be held over two stages for security reasons, but it is equally true that electoral reasons are also behind the decision."
Rabie explained that the first stage, which is scheduled to begin inside Egypt on 22 March, will aim to elect 269 deputies from 14 governorates or 60 from party lists and 209 as independents.
The second stage will kick off on 1 April in 13 governorates and will lead to the election of 271 deputies or 60 from party lists and 211 as independents.
"This leads to a total of 540 deputies from the two stages and as stipulated by the constitution, while the president will have the prerogative of appointing 5 per cent or 27 deputies so that the final total will be 567 deputies," explained Rabie.
According to Rabie, the above division sends a very good message about equality.
"The constitution states that there must be equality among constituencies in terms of number of deputies and size of the area and the above division goes in line with this equality," argued Rabie.
Rabie notes that Cairo, the capital of Egypt, will be part of the second stage of the polls. "I also note that the second stage includes North Sinai, Egypt's most troublesome governorate in terms of security right now," said Rabie, adding that "if division of the two stages observes equality, then it also observed security interests."
"It is clear that army and police officials in consultation with HEC opted to leave controversial governorates like Cairo and North Sinai at the final stage," Rabie added.
The first stage of the polls includes five low-key governorates: Luxor, Aswan, the New Valley, the Red Sea and Marsa Matruh. "These are mostly border governorates with a small number of registered voters security issues," said Rabie.
Generally speaking, the first stage includes most of the Upper Egyptian governorates. In addition to Aswan and Luxor, it will comprise the densely populated governorates of Giza, Minya, Assiut, Fayoum and Beni Suef.
But the first stage also includes the influential Mediterranean city of Alexandria and one governorate from the Nile delta, namely Beheira.
Rabie notes that Alexandria, Beheira, Giza and Minya had been always considered hotbeds for Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood.
In addition to the influential Cairo, the second stage mostly includes six heavily populated Nile delta governorates: Qalioubiya, Menoufiya, Daqahliyya, Gharbiya, Sharqiya and Kafr Al-Sheikh. It also comprises the three "canal" governorates: Suez, Ismailia and Port Said, not to mention the nearby governorates of North and South Sinai.
Rabie hopes that HEC's successful beginning will be completed by proving that it is a truly independent body, keen to stand up to any kind of a Mubarak-style state intimidation or individual irregularities.