Egyptian government cracks down on critics ahead of parliament elections

By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 10:44 PM

CAIRO - Egyptians will elect a new parliament Sunday amid political turmoil and growing questions about the eventual successor of President Hosni Mubarak.

With a government crackdown on its main rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, there is little doubt that the ruling National Democratic Party will retain its grip on power.

The election, however, could bolster the chances of Mubarak's son Gamal succeeding him, depending on which factions within the ruling party perform well.

The vote and its aftermath are likely to be a harbinger of how the Arab world's largest state, a key U.S. ally, will handle its first change of guard in decades. Hosni Mubarak, 82, who has been in power since 1981, has been treated for undisclosed ailments in recent months.

"The results of these elections seem to be preordained," said Ammar Ali Hassan, a political analyst. "It's all part of a chain of events to shape the authority for the post-Mubarak period."

In recent weeks, the government has silenced critical media outlets and jailed hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition bloc, which has been outlawed but fields candidates as independents.

In Alexandria, the country's second-largest city, a judge this week ordered the cancellation of the election in nine of 10 districts, citing the high number of disqualified candidates. Most belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptian officials have ignored calls from Washington and others to suspend an emergency law that gives security forces wide powers to suppress rallies and demonstrations. Officials have also refused to allow international observers monitor the polls.

Critics say the government has stifled political participation in recent years through legal maneuvers.

"The combination of restrictive laws, intimidation and arbitrary arrests is making it extremely difficult for citizens to choose freely the people they want to represent them in parliament," Joe Stark, the Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said in a report issued this week. "Repression by the government makes free and fair elections extremely unlikely this weekend."

Eyes on Washington

After a decade during which some Egyptians saw glimmers of hope for political reforms, the opposition is weaker and rudderless on the eve of election day, according to analysts and politicians outside the ruling party.

Excitement over the presumed presidential candidacy of Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has all but vanished. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has assumed a low profile, largely staying abroad and so far not saying whether he intends to run.

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