Egypt cracks down on Muslim Brotherhood ahead of elections

Sunday's elections are shaping up to be less free than the last vote in 2005, when the Brotherhood tripled its seats in parliament. Today, 700 members are awaiting trial.

Amr Nabil/AP
Egyptian supporters of Manal Aboul Hassan, one of the Muslim Brotherhood candidates for the coming parliamentary election, the country's strongest and best organized opposition group, hold up her poster during her campaign in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 24.

Arrests of more than 1,300 political activists, violent dispersals of opposition campaign events, and a reduction of independent poll monitoring all point to a landslide victory for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in this Sunday's parliamentary elections.

In a report out today, Human Rights Watch said a fair election is unlikely, pointing to "mass arbitrary arrests ... and widespread intimidation of opposition candidates."

Reformers had one piece of good news Wednesday – blogger Kareem Amer was released after four years in jail after being convicted for insulting President Mubarak and Islam. At the same time, however, the Egyptian journalist Youssef Shaaban was remanded to custody for a further 15 days in detention. He was picked up trying to cover a protest against a land developer in Alexandria.

But the travails of the Muslim Brotherhood – a banned Islamist political party whose activists technically run as independents – perhaps best show the extent to which the government seeks to ensure the outcome will be to its liking. More important, it could well be a foreshadowing of how the presidential election scheduled for next year will be conducted.

700 Muslim Brotherhood activists await trial

The vast majority of arrests so far have been of Brotherhood activists. While most have since been released, more than 700 are awaiting trial, since the government argues that political organizations with a religious perspective are illegal. The Brotherhood's most enduring motto is "Islam is the solution."

One senior government official who asked not to be named says the Brotherhood is "completely squeezed" and predicts the NDP will extend its 72 percent share of control in parliament that it secured in the 2005 poll. He denied, however, that repressive tactics will be responsible for a predicted weak Brotherhood showing – instead saying that he thinks Egyptians are simply more aware that the "the NDP's program is what the government needs."

The government outright disqualified a handful of Brotherhood candidates. While most were technically reinstated by court order, the movement says the government has still kept their names off the ballot.

MP Saad El-Katatni, who heads the Brotherhood bloc in Parliament, said at a press conference earlier this week that he and his supporters have been subject to police intimidation and been prevented from campaigning. The government "campaign is to terrorize people and prevent them from supporting Brotherhood candidates," he said.

Election monitors shut out

While Egypt almost never has truly free elections, all of this is a sharp departure from the start of the last parliamentary poll in 2005, at a time when the US – the largest source of foreign aid here – was pushing for democratic openings across the Arab world. "The repression and control is far more intense this time than it was in 2005," says Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Cairo.

This week Egypt rejected US and other international calls for foreign election observers, with an angry Prime Minister Ahmed Nazi saying Egypt is "capable of monitoring the upcoming polls to prove to the entire world we are able to manage completely impartial elections... it is as if the United States has turned into a caretaker [of] Egyptian society."

But it's unclear to what extent Egyptians themselves will be allowed to monitor the fairness of the process.

REPORT: Volunteers go hi-tech to map Egypt election irregularities

A consortium of Egyptian groups seeking to observe the election says as of this writing that none of the more than 2,000 applications for observers have been approved. Visitors to the High Elections Commission website who click on the link for the role of "Civil Society and Observers" are told the page is "under construction."

How the Brotherhood won 20 percent of seats in 2005

In 2005, the Brotherhood was allowed to campaign more freely than they had in decades and on the eve of the first round of that year's three-stage election, not a single Brotherhood political activist was in jail (though hundreds had been temporarily detained in the weeks preceding the poll). Their supporters swamped polling places from the capital city of Cairo to industrial Nile delta towns like Mahallah and the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

The government – apparently alarmed by the movement's strong showing on the first day – took action to prevent a repeat in the final two rounds of voting. The government scrambled riot police and thugs with machetes and sticks to keep Brotherhood supporters away from polling stations in those rounds, bused in their own supporters by the thousands to vote in hotly contested areas, and stemmed the Brotherhood tide.

In the end, the movement still ended up with 20 percent of Parliament – tripling its tally in the 2000 election and notching its best-ever showing.

Brotherhood rifts

But in the years since they've made little impact on policy, and divisions have emerged from within the Brotherhood's ranks.

An internal Brotherhood leadership election earlier this year saw many of its so-called reformers – who wanted the movement to more directly engage in the political process, and to build links for secular political groups that favor democratic change – dumped in favor of more traditionalist leaders.

The new leaders want the movement to put more emphasis in its traditional area of Islamic outreach. Their argument is a gradualist one – that if they build a more Islamic public while avoiding damaging government crackdowns, then eventual victory will be assured.

Most other parties have also been targeted and a number of small secular parties are boycotting the election outright. One key exception to all this appears to be the Wafd Party, a secular group that is largely in sync with the NDP's big business views and discomfort with the religious and leftist political activism.

Political analysts in Cairo expect that group to supplant the Brotherhood as the largest opposition bloc in parliament in an election that could have lower turnout than the one in 2005, in which under 25 percent of eligible Egyptian voters went to the polls.

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