CAIRO — Egypt on Sunday said that long-awaited parliamentary elections will take place in October and November, a potential step toward democracy amid a harsh crackdown on dissent.
Ayman Abbas, head of the Supreme Election Committee, said about half the country’s 27 governorates will vote Oct. 18-19. The second stage will take place for the remaining governorates Nov. 22-23.
The period for candidates to register opens Sept. 1 and lasts 12 days.
Egypt has been without a legislature for three years. In its absence, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi holds legislative authority and has passed dozens of laws by decree in just over a year of his tenure. Parliamentary elections were supposed to be held in March, but a court suspended them over districting issues.
As army chief, Sissi led the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Sissi was elected president last year.
Last July, he endorsed an amended law defining voting districts, which political groups and rights defenders said was steered by security concerns and ignored demands of Egypt’s budding political groups seeking smaller districts to enable them to compete.
Speaking at a news conference in Cairo, Abbas said that the first stage of the vote would be for the governorates of Giza, Fayoum, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut, el-Wadi el-Gadid, Sohag, Qena, Aswan, Red Sea, Luxor, Alexandria, Beheira, and Marsa Matrouh.
The second stage would encompass Cairo, Qalioubiya, Dakahliya, Menoufiya, Gharbiya, Kafr el-Shiekh, Sharqiya, Damietta, Port Said, Ismailia, Suez, North Sinai, and South Sinai.
The previous Parliament was dissolved via court order over electoral technicalities in June 2012, a few days before Morsi was elected. The largest bloc in that Parliament consisted of members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, who frequently teamed with ultraconservative Salafi Muslim lawmakers to effectively dominate the legislature.
Authorities banned the Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist organization following Morsi’s ouster. In its absence, and with some secularist opposition groups expected to boycott the vote, Egypt’s next Parliament will probably be stocked with supporters of Sissi’s military-backed government.
Also Sunday, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador in Cairo to protest comments he made after a judge sentenced three Al-Jazeera English journalists to three years of prison each for reporting “false news.”
The ministry said in a statement that John Casson’s comments were “unacceptable interference” in the country’s judiciary and “incompatible with diplomatic norms and practices.” In a post on Twitter, spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said Egypt “rejects any foreign criticism of judicial verdicts.”
The court sentenced Canadian Mohammed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohammed on Saturday, reigniting international criticism over the long-running case and highlighting authorities’ crackdown on free speech.
Speaking to television cameras in Arabic after the verdict, Casson said he was “shocked and concerned by the sentences,” in a case that is of “profound interest to Egyptians because it has become a symbol of the basis for stability in the new Egypt.”
“I am concerned that today’s ruling will undermine confidence in the basis of Egypt’s stability, both in Egypt and abroad,” he said.
Several other foreign diplomats at the trial also condemned the verdict, but Casson may have been the only one to speak in Arabic to domestic television stations. The United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and human rights advocacy groups and press freedom organizations also sharply criticized it.
Casson’s comments, posted on the British Embassy’s Facebook page, were met with a wave of negative reaction in Arabic and English. He also posted similar comments on Twitter, where he is one of the most widely followed Western diplomats in Egypt, with nearly 28,000 followers.
The British Embassy said Casson met Hisham Seif al-Din, chief of staff to Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, at the ministry’s request Sunday.
“Ambassador Casson explained the UK position on yesterday’s court ruling set out in statements in London and Cairo yesterday,” it said in a statement, adding that he would transmit the Egyptian side’s concerns to government ministers in London.
The trial entangled the journalists’ work in the wider political conflict between Egypt and Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, following the ouster of Morsi.
Evidence presented at the trial ventured into the absurd, including music videos and footage of animals, which defense lawyers and even the judge dismissed as irrelevant. Third-party observers say no evidence proved the charges, and critics described the case as politically motivated.
Besides the “false news” charge, Judge Hassan Farid said in his ruling that he sentenced the men because they had not registered with the country’s journalist syndicate, brought in equipment without security officials’ approval, and used central Cairo’s Marriott hotel as a broadcasting point without permission.
Greste was deported to Australia in February and sentenced Saturday in absentia.
The three are now seeking a pardon from Sissi, who has personally expressed regret over the long-running trial and the damage it has done to Egypt’s international reputation. If a pardon is not granted, they will appeal once the full verdict is released in the next 30 days.