After unprecedented success for the Muslim Brotherhood in the first round of Egypt's three-stage parliamentary election, Hosni Mubarak's regime appeared to be taking no chances in Sunday's second round, held in the northern city of Alexandria and surrounding towns in the Nile delta.
Thugs from the ruling party were dispatched to polling places and ruling party "voters" were bused in to hotly contested constituencies, independent poll monitors said. After releasing every Muslim Brotherhood political activist from jail before the first round of voting in Cairo on Nov. 10, the government arrested approximately 400 over this weekend.
Interior Ministry spokesman Ibrahim Hamad said in a statement that a plot by supporters of "Islamist candidates" led to most of the violence and arrests.
Though the Bush administration has recently praised Egyptian democratic developments, political analysts and opposition groups complain little has changed. "This is a lousy election so far.... I don't believe we're really seeing a new type of politics unfolding,'' says Mohammed Sayed Said, a political scientist and director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "In the 2000 elections, the first round was fairly free. But since it witnessed a massive failure on the part of the NDP [National Democratic Party NDP], the government shifted immediately to an explicit rigging of the elections."
But though voter intimidation and corruption in Egyptian elections is hardly unusual, the results so far are surprising. The banned but partially tolerated Brotherhood has at least tripled its presence in parliament with one more round of voting to go. Though the Brotherhood's presence in parliament will likely be small - at most 20 percent of the seats after the final round on Nov. 30 - its gains come as the secular opposition has fallen apart.
The strength of the Brotherhood (its motto is "Islam is the solution") appears to confirm the warnings of political scientists who predicted the regime's tight controls on formal political parties, coupled with the Brotherhood's ability to get around restrictions with its mosque and charity-based outreach, would leave the Islamist opposition as the only viable political alternative in the eyes of voters.
Mr. Said says that in this environment, it's not surprising that the Islamists are the main opposition. "They have an extensive network of not only mosques, but clinics and private schools, and they're extremely powerful in Egyptian universities."
"The success of the Brotherhood in the second round of the elections is a success for the opposition as a whole, it is a reflection of the anger... of millions of Egyptians at the economic, social, and political policies of the ruling NDP,'' says Ali Abdel al-Fatah, a top Brotherhood leader in Alexandria.
Mr. Fatah estimates the Brotherhood won at least 13 seats in the latest round of elections, bringing its total so far to 47 seats, about 10 percent of parliament. The group won 15 seats in the last election. The final round will be in the country's south, an NDP stronghold, and the Brotherhood is unlikely to do as well there.
But despite its successes, Brotherhood supporters encountered huge obstacles getting to the polls. Monday's front page of Al-Masri Al-Yom carried pictures of NDP supporters with machetes threatening voters in front of a passive phalanx of riot police, an NDP-linked candidate holding a pistol in Alexandria, and a group of Brotherhood supporters trying to vote while armed with chairs and broomsticks.
In the Nile delta city of Damanhour, the popular Brotherhood candidate Gamal Heshmat (who was stripped of the seat he won after the 2000 election) ran against senior NDP official Mustafa Fiqi. On Sunday, security officers used tear gas and sticks to keep Brotherhood supporters away from the polls, according to an independent election observer who asked not to be named.