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Amid violent riots, Egyptian elections fizzle

The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, facing repression, failed to harness growing public discontent.

By Liam StackContributor / April 9, 2008

Empty polls: An electoral official casts the vote of a woman who couldn't reach the ballot box. Many didn't even reach the polls.

Ben Curtis/AP



Finally, after a two-year postponement, Egypt's polls opened Tuesday for municipal council elections. But hardly anyone came.

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In Cairo's Manyal neighborhood, many residents said they did not realize there was an election. Among those who were aware, many said voting was useless, with candidates loyal to President Hosni Mubarak running unopposed in 90 percent of the races.

"I voted last time but this time I won't because I don't think it is going to be fair," says Hany, a young man who declined to give his last name. "It makes all of us feel like the government is only doing what it wants, and doesn't care about what we want."

The elections are being held at a time of burgeoning economic unrest and ongoing political repression. Public discontent with the regime is widespread, and opposition groups appear unable to successfully mobilize this growing dissent.

The weeks before Tuesday's vote were marked by a systemic campaign to block regime critics from running in the contest, which had been postponed since April 2006. At the center of the crackdown were the arrests over the past several weeks of 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's main opposition group.

The Brotherhood, which holds a fifth of parliament's seats, says it had planned to support 10,000 candidates for 52,000 posts on local councils at the town, city and province level across Egypt. But faced with intimidation and bureaucratic technicalities, fewer than two dozen managed to get their names on final election lists.

On Monday, the Brotherhood pulled their candidates from the race and called on Egyptians to boycott the vote, saying that it would not reflect the will of the Egyptian people.

"The regime has adopted a strategy to keep us from competing with them in elections – they decided they would start arresting people, detaining people, and trying some of them in front of military courts," says Mohamed Habib, the group's deputy leader. "They want to have the security apparatus control the whole country, and put the Brotherhood on the sidelines of political life so it can not be an active participant in it."

The government also tried, through state-run media, to intimidate prospective participants in a general strike called by secular opposition groups over the weekend. In the first major attempt by opposition groups and intellectuals to coordinate actions with labor activists, the strike was planned to coincide with a worker's strike at the state-run Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla. The factory is the largest public-sector firm in the Middle East and a national icon.