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.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A member of banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition group distributes leaflets in Alexandria, Friday. Egypt's parliamentary election on Sunday is expected to produce another clear victory for President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party. Opposition groups have cried foul in advance.

There's an upbeat mood in offices of the National Democratic Party (NDP) ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections.

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.

RELATED: Egypt cracks down on Muslim Brotherhood ahead of elections

"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.

"We haven't taken any decision to monopolize power or to weaken the opposition," says Ali El Din Hilal, the NDP's spokesman. He says the reporting of fraud in past Egyptian elections was either the result of bias or reporters "being misled by sources."

"We believe in the principle of competitive elections," he says. "The NDP doesn't have a need to rig elections. We are very strong ... and when you look at facilities like electricity, clean water, the network of roads, you can see that we're improving the lives of average Egyptians."

Still, almost all independent observers expect this election to be less fair than the one held in 2005. After the Brotherhood took 88 seats in that parliament (tripling its percentage in parliament to about 20 percent), independent judicial oversight of elections was ended and the vote was shortened from three days to one, making it harder to monitor election violations.

Opposition groups, particularly the Brotherhood, have been given less space to campaign. Popular Brotherhood MPs have been dogged by police details everywhere they go, supporters have been beaten at campaign events, and the leader of their bloc in parliament, Mohammad al-Katatni, says he was attacked by a mob while driving home earlier this week.

The Brotherhood's Mr. Ibrahim is among the candidates who have been kept off the ballot, after he earned a crushing victory in 2005. He says police have followed him as he's canvassed neighborhoods in his district in Alexandria – Egypt's second city and a place where tensions have been running high after two recent cases in which local police are accused of torturing criminal suspects in detention, and a number of leftist political activists have been detained and beaten.

RELATED: Who will run Egypt after Hosni Mubarak?

The High Elections Commission (HEC) has so far appeared to side strongly with the government. A court in Alexandria earlier this month ordered the reinstatement of Ibrahim and nine other candidates that the HEC had held off the ballot, most of them from the Brotherhood. The HEC simply ignored the order, and in response the Alexandria court ordered the election in those 10 districts to be postponed. Courts in other parts of the country have called for races in a further 12 districts to be postponed, but it isn't clear if these orders will be ignored as well.

The vast majority of Egyptian's probably won't vote at all

"Vote?" laughs Mohammed Bazzi, a vendor of brightly colored women's headscarves on a side-street in Cairo's dilapidated downtown. "I might get beaten up and it makes no difference whether I do or not."

Though the election has little direct bearing on who, if anyone, will succeed Mubarak next year, the regime appears to be battening down the hatches ahead of a succession question that is of intense local and international interest.

President Mubarak, who has been dogged by rumors of ill health, will be 83 at the time of the presidential poll, and opposition activists say the current muscle-flexing against parliamentary candidates is telling the public that street-level protests of any sort won't be tolerated in the coming year.

Posters have mushroomed in Alexandria and elsewhere calling for Mubarak's son, Gamal, to succeed him.

The younger Mubarak, an investment banker without a traditional military background, hasn't officially thrown his hat into the ring. Chances appear good that his father will stand again, health permitting. But political activists say Egypt is clearly moving into a period of transition from the rule of man who has been in power longer than any leader here since the 19th century.

"They're sending a message to everyone – all of Egypt's religious and political groups – that if you raise your head up, the stick is waiting for you," says Mustafa Mohamad, one of the current Muslim Brotherhood MPs from Alexandria who has been kept off the ballot. "The NDP is simply arranging the political map of Egypt to its liking. It gets to define who is allowed to be opposition."

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