Amid violent riots, Egyptian elections fizzle

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

Ben Curtis/AP
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.

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

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.

But both strikes were thwarted by a combination of worker infighting and a crackdown by state security, which arrested 150 labor leaders early Sunday morning. Protests erupted in Mahalla late that afternoon when townspeople, including a large number of women and children, gathered in the main square to protest the morning arrests as well as a skyrocketing inflation rate, which has nearly doubled the price of many staple foods in the last three months. Nearly 40 percent of Egypt's 80 million people live at or near the poverty line of $2 a day.

The protest turned violent when thugs hired by security services, called baltageyya, began pelting demonstrators with stones, according to witnesses.

"One minute there was nothing, and then suddenly there were big crowds of people and state security officers and baltageyya," says Joel Beinin, a labor historian and professor of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, who was present at the Mahalla demonstrations. "The baltageyya started throwing rocks very carefully, like they were firing volleys. They aimed very high so they would arc up and then fall on people's heads."

According to Ahmed Seif, Director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, rioting spread across the city as police pursued demonstrators from neighborhood to neighborhood firing tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, and live rounds of ammunition. Protesters responded with stones, bricks and Molotov cocktails.

Monday afternoon saw new clashes when a crowd of young men tore down a large portrait of President Mubarak in the city's main square. Demonstrators also burned banks, schools, buses and shops. Estimates of those injured in the violence range from 80 to more than 150. Local media reported up to five killed.

"Workers and people from the town came out in to the streets all around the factory without any organization, breaking things and setting them on fire," says Syed Habib, a Mahalla labor organizer reached by phone after the riots. "Everything has come to a standstill. The only thing working now is the factory."

Observers say the outburst of violence in an iconic factory town, as well as the inability of opposition movements to organize a strike, demonstrates both the disorganization of the Egyptian opposition and the deep frustration felt by many Egyptians across the boundaries of social class.

"The regime knew it could not let a general strike happen and that any movement that came from the working classes as well as [the] intellectual [classes] is not a good sign for them," says Mr. Beinin. "The regime reacted very, very strongly, judging correctly that this was a potentially very serious challenge to them," he added. "But what happened surely indicates that opposition movements are very disorganized."

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