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Egyptian government cracks down on critics ahead of elections

By Ernesto Londono
Friday, November 26, 2010; A07

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.

Amid questions about the fairness of the vote, opposition leaders were split on whether to boycott the election. George Ishaq, a leader with the National Association for Change, a coalition that campaigned against the ruling party leading up to the 2005 elections, said it was pointless to participate this time.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders decided to contest 30 percent of the lower house of parliament's 508 seats.

"We have hope, and we are growing in numbers," said Mohammed Mursi, the group's election coordinator. But he said the process has been anything but fair.

Candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood became the largest opposition bloc in parliament in 2005, winning 88 seats, roughly 20 percent.

Critics of the government say they feel disillusioned by what they describe as Washington's lackluster support for the pro-reform camp. Ibrahim Issa, the recently fired editor of a newspaper that criticized the government, said the Obama administration apparently considers the ruling party the best alternative for a stable country in a volatile region.

"Maybe they will realize at some point that playing with alligators is dangerous," Issa said. "They bite."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley pushed back on that criticism, saying the United States remains committed to widening political participation in Egypt.

"Egyptian officials are well aware of our views and the importance we attach to political reform," he said in an e-mail.

Ruling party leaders deny that they have stacked the deck against the opposition and say they are working to guarantee a fair election.

"The past five years have been years of social, economic and political mobility," said Ali Eddin Helal, the party's chief spokesman. "I think each actor is positioning itself to benefit from the social mobility, the social vitality."

'It's all the same'

The ruling party presented more than one candidate for several seats, which analysts interpreted as a sign of growing internal rifts between the party's old guard and a younger, pro-business faction.

In a speech Nov. 10, Mubarak said his government would continue to pursue economic growth "with an eye on the least privileged and accompanied by a concerted effort to secure a trickle-down effect."

Other than that speech, Mubarak has kept a low profile. His son, however, has been unusually visible, making the case in a series of television interviews that the party needs a shake-up.

"Circumstances have changed," Gamal Mubarak said in a recent television interview. "Any party, not just the NDP, if it doesn't develop itself, develop its mechanisms and political discourse, as well as its internal workings, cannot continue."

Anonymous ruling party officials have been quoted as saying the elder Mubarak intends to run for reelection next year. Many here are not convinced and see the latest blitz of Gamal Mubarak appearances as an effort to boost his standing, particularly within segments of the ruling class, such as the military, that view him warily.

On the streets of Cairo, few Egyptians expressed enthusiasm about Sunday's vote.

"There is no information on who the candidates are," Abuzaid Youssef, 45, a school administrator. He said he would vote for "any person other than the NDP because they only talk but they don't do anything."

His wife, Sabah Faraq, 40, said she hadn't bothered to renew her voter registration card. "It's all the same," she said with a shrug. "Whether I pay attention or not, we will have the same result."

Special correspondent Mandi Fahmy contributed to this report.

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