With the Egypt election underway, poll observers and democracy activists reported 150 opposition supporters arrested, clashes in the tough Nile delta town of Mansoura, and supporters of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood driven away from the polls in at least two poor Cairo districts that have turned out in force for the Islamist movement in past elections.
But in Alexandria, where a swell of support for the Muslim Brotherhood helped the group triple its representation in parliament to about 20 percent in the 2005 election, the situation was mostly calm.
Lines for government-subsidized bread were longer than the trickle of people heading into polling stations in the tough Al-Raml district, where the Municipal Development Minister Abdul Salam Mahgoub, a loyalist of President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), is running against the Brotherhood incumbent Sobhi Saleh, who said he was attacked by "thugs" when he tried to vote today and went briefly to an area hospital before leaving in the afternoon.
The reason for relatively less volatile situation, say activists and average Alexandrians, is an effective round of repressive measures against the Brothers in the weeks before the vote, including the arrest of dozens of mid-level activists who are the link between the officially banned party's leadership (its members technically run for election as independents) and grass-roots supporters. And the alleged beating of Mr. Saleh -- who has run a strong campaign and is up against an NDP darling -- is being seen as an object lesson for others.
Muslim Brotherhood activists jailed
On Saturday, 15 Brotherhood activists were sentenced to two years in jail for the crime of using Islamic political slogans -- notwithstanding the fact that even candidates from the secular NDP have used Islamic references at campaign stops. Today, most of the Brotherhood's websites were blocked on Egyptian servers and activists blamed the government.
"When the outcome of an election seems virtually guaranteed before it starts, few people want to waste their time getting involved," says Ahmed Ali, who sells newspapers in dowtown Alexandria.
Mr. Ali didn't vote. While no Brotherhood supporter -- ''mixing religion and politics is bad for Egypt," he says -- he laces his references to the ruling NDP with curses and says he has some sympathy for the movement. "Maybe they would be a step to giving us freedom, which we aren't allowed now."
Elsewhere in Egypt, Brotherhood and other opposition candidates had tough going. A candidate of the secular Wafd Pary in Kafr El Dawar said three of his campaign aides were arrested.
Diplomatic tight-rope for the US
An Egyptian election that is shaping up to be a walkover for the NDP -- which holds about 70 percent of the current parliament -- and is being roundly panned by local and international NGOs as neither free nor fair, is a reminder of the diplomatic tight-rope that the US and the administration of President Obama walk with the Arab world's most populous country.
The US provides about $1 billion in aid to Egypt annually -- most of that to its military -- and sees it as a key partner in securing US regional ambitions.
Egypt is one of two Arab states that has a peace treaty with Israel and, like the US, is eager to check the rising power and influence of Iran in Arab states like Iraq and Lebanon. But it is non-democratic, torture is frequently used in its police stations and prisons, and has a population that increasingly sees President Mubarak and the country's ruling clique as overlords rather than elected representatives.
That the flawed election in Alexandria was allowed to go forward was a sign to democracy activists that the process is hopelessly compromised. After the High Election Commission, which is close to the NDP, withheld the names of a number of sitting Brotherhood MPs from the ballot, a judicial order was issued to postpone the vote in 10 of Alexandria's districts until they were reinstated. The reinstatement order was ignored -- as was the order to postpone the vote.
'Pushed toward' violence?
Among the excluded candidates was Hassan Ibrahim, the deputy head of the Brotherhood bloc in the outgoing parliament. He argues that the moves had removed even a veneer of legitimacy from the vote, and warns that in the long run that could be bad for all Egyptians. "We reject and condemn the use of violence -- we can't have those kinds of divisions here. But the Egyptian people are being pushed toward it."
Mr. Saleh has complained that his campaign posters have been ripped down by NDP members and police dogged his steps while he sought to campaign in Raml's tiny lanes, where leaning brick highrises teeter over donkey-carts and street vendors shooing flies from fish pulled from the nearby Mediterranean. A coffeeshop owner there says he was paid a visit by a policeman on Friday, who took note of a Brotherhood poster across the street. "He warned us against showing any support for them," says the owner. The poster was soon gone.
Why Alexandria is quiet
"Why does Alexandria seem quiet today? Because of everything that's happened in the past two weeks," says Maienour al-Masri, a local lawyer and democracy activist. She represents Alexandria journalist Yusef Shaalabi, who was arrested two weeks ago. The government says he was caught with marijuana. Ms. Masri says Mr. Shaalabi doesn't even smoke cigarettes, and his supporters believe he's being punished for writing intensively about Kahlid Said, an Alexandria man who his supporters say was beaten to death by police after he distributed a video allegedly showing local cops involved in the drug trade.
The police initially insisted that he had choked to death on a bag of marijuana he tried to swallow, but after photos of Mr. Said's battered body circulated on the internet and witnesses stepped forward, two junior officers have been put on trial. "There is near total impunity in Alexandria, and this effects the elections, and the security of everyone who speaks out," says Mesri.
After a meeting with President Mubarak in September, the White House issued a statement summarizing Mr. Obama's message to the country's longest-serving leader since the 19th century. "President Obama reaffirmed the importance of a vibrant civil society, open political competition, and credible and transparent elections in Egypt."
The regime's response has been to dismiss a US call for international observers -- NDP spokesman Ali El Din Hilal says "Egyptian civil society is competent" to ensure fair elections -- and Egypt is holding an election that comes against a backdrop of jailing members of civil society groups, preventing some opposition candidates from competing at all by holding them off the ballot, and keeping election monitors away from some of Egypt's roughly 40,000 polling stations.