Egyptians voted in parliamentary elections Sunday amid a crackdown on opposition candidates that is certain to tighten the ruling party's grip on a nation angry over economic problems and anxious about next year's presidential poll.
Opponents accused the ruling National Democratic Party of bribing voters and stuffing ballot boxes to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition bloc. Hundreds of Brotherhood members were recently arrested and it appeared the Islamist group might lose half its seats in parliament.
Sporadic clashes flared across the country but did not approach the violence of 2005, when at least 17 people were killed. The police presence in Cairo and other cities was visible but not overwhelming. Civic leaders and campaign observers said voters were turned away in some districts and intimidated by stick-wielding thugs in others.
"This election is absolute forgery," said Usama Sayed, complaining that he and other local monitors were chased away from polling stations. "Independents weren't allowed to campaign. They weren't allowed to meet with voters. This new parliament will be one without opposition."
The government said official results in the contest for 508 seats would be announced Tuesday. Turnout was light among Egypt's 40 million voters, reminiscent of five years ago when only about 20% of those eligible cast ballots.
"There are a large number of violations," said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "We are still getting news of bullying, use of force and [ballot] rigging across the country. All of this at a time when the state is giving human rights observers and media a very limited space to work."
The government of President Hosni Mubarak promised fair elections, but their legitimacy was marred by pressure on independent candidates, mass arrests, media harassment and a boycott by some opposition groups, including one led by Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the U.N. nuclear regulatory agency and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The United States gives Cairo more than $1 billion in aid annually, but was unable to persuade Egypt to allow international observers. It was another indication that Mubarak, who has been in ill health, was content to ignore Western concerns about political repression in order to preserve his party's hold on power.
The NDP is facing a crucial time ahead of the 2011 presidential election. It is not certain that Mubarak, who has been in office since 1981, will seek a sixth term. This has hardened divisions between the party's old guard and its ranks of young businessmen.
The government's strategy Sunday focused on diminishing the influence of its main rival, the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2005, the organization, which is banned and whose members run as independents, stunned the country by winning 20% of the seats in parliament. Brotherhood leaders predicted Sunday that they would suffer significant losses.
In the southern town of Qena, police fired tear gas to disperse 400 Brotherhood supporters who claimed they had been blocked from voting. In the coastal city of Alexandria, Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood candidate, said police watched as he was attacked by hoodlums. Brotherhood members also scuffled with police at a number of polling stations.
Loudspeakers blared from minibuses and boys ran through streets with campaign flags in Cairo's Shubra el Kheima neighborhood. A rusted Ferris wheel sat behind a crumbling wall near a textile plant and a vegetable market. Many of the shoppers at the market live on less than $2 a day.
"I always vote for the NDP candidates," said Mustafa Mohammed. "They do well by us."
But another man stepped beside him and shook his head.
"Our Muslim Brotherhood legislator never got the chance to help the neighborhood because the government never gave him the chance," said Yasser Shuman. "Look around you now, you can't even find a Brotherhood banner. The NDP candidate doesn't deserve our vote, but he'll get it because that's the only way to get things done."
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo Bureau.