President Hosni Mubarak's party tightens its grip on Egypt

President Hosni Mubarak won 74 of 88 seats in elections for the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house of parliament, amid accusations of fraud and state intimidation. The vote sets the scene for more important upcoming elections.

Bob Edme/Reuters
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak (c.), shown at the opening session of the 25th Africa-France Summit at the Congress Palace in Nice, southern France, May 31. Mubarak's party won 74 of 88 seats in elections for the Shura Council.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's party has tightened its grip on power heading into a tense year of elections that could replace the man who has been a pillar of Middle East politics since 1981.

In the first of three elections to be held over the next 16 months, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) rolled to victory in elections for the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house of parliament. The election put up for grabs 88 seats in the 264-seat chamber, which is less powerful than the lower house of parliament. The NDP walked away with 74 of them.

Voter turnout was low and there were accusations of fraud and state intimidation at the polls, a familiar pattern in Egyptian elections.

Although the Shura Council is seen by many here as a rubber stamp for President Mubarak, who appoints one-third of its members, Tuesday's elections were a test of how much control the regime will exert leading up to fall elections for the lower house of parliament and presidential elections in September 2011. The outcome also makes it highly unlikely that an independent candidate, such as Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, could run for president.

Under constitutional amendments passed in 2007, an independent candidate seeking to run for president needs to collect a combination of 230 signatures of endorsement from members of local councils and both houses of parliament.

“So if the government is controlling ... the Shura Council, then there is no chance for [an independent] to run,” says Emad Gad, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, a government funded think-tank in Cairo.

Electoral commission criticized by rights activists

In 2007, Egypt removed direct judicial oversight from its elections and instead left the government-appointed Higher Electoral Commission in charge of overseeing the polls. The removal of the judiciary, which is seen as generally independent in Egypt, was roundly criticized at the time.

The 2007 Shura Council election, which was held without judicial oversight, was marked by state-sponsored violence at the polls, the beating of an opposition parliamentarian by policemen, and the arrest of 800 activists from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular opposition group. Egyptian political analysts at the time said the level of fraud in the 2007 Shura election was evidence that the electoral commission served the interests of the NDP, not the Egyptian people.

Those kinds of charges are still being leveled.

“The absence of judges has meant that these elections were even less free than they used to be prior to 2007 and this is also a very worrying sign about the more decisive and much anticipated parliamentary elections [for the People's Assembly] later this year,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

In the 2005 People's Assembly, or parliamentary, elections judges were still present in polling places and helped tamp down fraud. The People's Assembly has not held an election since.

The electoral commission is also responsible for issuing permits to domestic election observers. Democracy advocates have accused the commission of preventing local NGOs from participating in the monitoring process. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) was only issued 20 of the 125 permits it applied for. The group says that most of its 20 accredited monitors were nevertheless prevented from entering polling stations. EOHR alleges bribery, pre-marked ballot cards, and the intimidation of opposition candidates and their supporters all marred this election.

Muslim Brotherhood cites harassment

On Tuesday a spokesman from the Muslim Brotherhood told the Monitor that all of their election monitors had been barred from reaching the ballot boxes. Officially banned since 1954, the Brotherhood runs candidates as independents in the country’s elections and in 2005 managed to secure 88 seats (almost 20 percent) in the People's Assembly.

None of the Brotherhood's 15 candidates in Tuesday's Shura elections won a seat. The group reported increased harassment compared to past elections.

“Nobody can reach the poll station now, even the voters are prevented, unless they have cards of the ruling party,” said Essam El-Erian, a Brotherhood spokesman.

Mr. El-Erian said a Brotherhood election monitor in Beheira, a governorate about 50 miles northwest of Cairo, was shot as he tried enter a polling station and is now in the hospital with a broken femur.

The Brotherhood has also accused the regime of harassing their candidates in the run-up to the elections, putting them under 24-hour surveillance, removing the organization’s campaign posters from the streets, and arresting the group’s supporters across the country. Three days ago, the Brotherhood says, state security fired live ammunition and tear gas to disperse a campaign rally in Beheira.

“That is the preliminary for the upcoming most important election – the parliamentary election in November,” says Mr. El-Erian. On Wednesday, the Brotherhood announced it would be collecting signatures from its supporters to support Dr. ElBaradei’s National Coalition for Change, throwing its weight behind the drive to amend the constitution to make it easier to run for president.

In the past, the regime was concerned mainly about a challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood. But the return of ElBaradei, the ex-chief of the United Nations nuclear watchdog who brings with him international stature and credibility, energized the political opposition and caused the regime to redouble its efforts to maintain its grip on power.

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