- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CAIRO | Egypt’s parliamentary elections Sunday have been ushered in by one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago, with the government seemingly determined to shut out its top rival, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign events by Brotherhood candidates and even attacked the movement’s top member in parliament in his car. More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested during the election campaign.

The measures have been so dramatic that a judge in an administrative court in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria late Wednesday ordered elections to be halted in at least 10 out of 11 city districts because so many candidates, particularly from the Brotherhood, had been disqualified by authorities.

The ruling party has appealed the decision, and it is not clear whether the government will implement it ahead of the elections Sunday.

Authorities also have reined in the media by shutting several independent TV stations and forcing critics off the air on other channels.

The clampdown suggests that this close U.S. ally in the Middle East wants to guarantee its powerful grip on authority ahead of more crucial presidential elections due next year.

It’s a sign of nervousness at an uncertain time, when there are questions over the health of Mr. Mubarak, 82, and when the country has endured a year of low-level but persistent street protests — not over political reform but over issues that hit closer to Egyptians’ daily lives such as high food prices, low wages and unemployment.

During the last parliamentary election, in 2005, widespread violence killed at least 10 people, in most cases when mobs rioted after trying to get into polling stations closed by police to keep out opposition voters. Even with the violence and reports of rigging of ballot boxes, the Brotherhood succeeded in winning a fifth of parliament’s seats, its best showing ever.

The Brotherhood, which is banned and yet remains Egypt’s most organized opposition force, is contesting 30 percent of the races across the country by running candidates as independents.

But the ruling party is expected to easily take back a much larger majority of parliament’s 508 seats, given the crackdown. The question will be whether violence will erupt again.

Tens of thousands of banners and posters have been draped around Cairo, and ruling-party candidates have thrown festive campaign rallies with live music performances and food and other gifts for supporters.

Still, turnout in Egyptian elections is chronically low, about 25 percent in the 2005 vote. The sense that results are a foregone conclusion could depress turnout further.

“I have not even considered voting,” said 21-year-old university student Ali Abdel-Halim. “Elections in Egypt are all about violence and vote buying. I have no faith in the process.”

Egypt’s Emergency Law, in place since 1981, gives police wide powers of arrest, meaning they have a relatively free hand to crack down on activists.

Further lowering excitement over the vote is the disappearance from the political landscape of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate whose return to his native Egypt this year to challenge Mr. Mubarak’s regime created a wave of support from reformists. The buzz has largely fizzled, and many blame Mr. ElBaradei’s constant travels abroad. He will not be in Egypt on voting day.

The ruling National Democratic Party has taken the campaign as an opportunity to depict itself as an advocate for the poor, apparently seeking to counter its reputation as a bastion for wealthy businessmen close to the de facto party leader. That would be the president’s son Gamal Mubarak, thought to be set on a track to succeed his father.

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