On eve of Egypt polls, Mubarak's ruling party tightens grip on opposition
Egypt's opposition politicians and their supporters have faced a steady stream of harassment in the lead-up to Sunday's parliamentary election.
There's an upbeat mood in offices of the National Democratic Party (NDP) ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections.Skip to next paragraph
The ruling party – the cornerstone of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule – is confident of extending its 72 percent control of parliament, boasts that it's managed to keep Egypt's economy growing during the global recession, and says its "trickle down" economic approach is improving the lives of average Egyptians.
Many Egyptians, however, see the economic picture much differently. The growth has widened the gap between rich and poor, food prices have risen faster than wages, and about 12 million of Egypt's 82 million people still live on less than $1 a day.
And if the NDP is optimistic about its prospects in Sunday's election, say opposition activists and democratic reformers, it may be at the expense of a fair election. They point to the government's disqualification of opposition candidates and the use of police intimidation at campaign rallies. They also note the overall restrictions of freedom of assembly and association as guaranteeing yet another sweeping majority for the NDP.
At least two Egyptians have been killed in campaign violence so far.
"We try to campaign in the streets, we get pushed into alleys. After we're pushed in the alleys the police are waiting there to beat us," says Hassan Ibrahim, the deputy of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the current parliament. The Brotherhood – banned as a political party, but whose members run as independents – is Egypt's most popular opposition group. "What we're being told is that if you want to run, you have to be prepared for beatings and possibly death."
The atmosphere is markedly different from the one five years ago. Then, the nascent secular opposition movement Kifaya (Enough) held rowdy rallies in Cairo and other cities. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was making alliances with other opposition groups. And with the US – Egypt's largest foreign financial backer, largely because of the country's peace treaty with Israel – pushing for democratic reform, some analysts were predicting a "Cairo spring."
Instead, the government cracked down heavily in the wake of Brotherhood gains in the 2005 polls. The Bush administration moved away from democracy promotion in the Arab world following that vote, as well as a free Palestinian election that delivered victory to Hamas demonstrated popular support for Islamist groups.
"The problem for the United States, in terms of democracy promotion, is that right now in most Arab countries the Islamist parties are more popular," Marina Ottaway, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East program, said in a talk earlier this month.
"As a result, the risk for the United States [is] that by pushing the countries to allow more democratic elections, what they see is the victory of the Islamist parties. This happened in Egypt in the 2005 elections, when the Muslim Brothers won 20 percent of the seats in the parliament. And in fact, the Bush administration stopped promoting elections in the Middle East, after that," she said.
Mubarak promises fair election
The NDP brushes aside claims that the vote won't be fair, and says the government and the party are committed to open elections, something Mubarak promised in his last public appearance.