Polls opened across Egypt on Sunday for a parliamentary election expected to strengthen the ruling party’s grip in the most populous Arab nation but marred by a crackdown on the Islamist opposition.
Polling stations opened at 8am (6am GMT) and are due to close at 7pm (5pm GMT), with about 41-million Egyptians eligible to vote. The first results are expected on Monday.
Egyptian security forces were on the alert after activists clashed with police at the end of a campaign overshadowed by violence and the arrests of more than 1 000 Islamists.
Initial indications showed a low turnout in the country of 80-million people, where polls are traditionally eyed with suspicion and where past elections have been marked by deadly clashes between police and protesters and battles between machete- and sword-wielding thugs hired by rival candidates.
At one polling station in central Cairo there was little sign of early interest in the election, with more journalists than voters present when polls opened.
In Alexandria, too, very few voters turned up in the first hour. Those who did were mostly supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
“It’s important to vote,” said Assem Nureddin, a private company employee in Alexandria, proudly showing the ink on his finger to prove he had voted.
A street vendor in the city however said he had no interest in voting. “The MPs are each one for themselves. If I vote, what is it going to change?”
The NDP is widely expected to win a solid majority of the 508 elected seats and to make further gains when President Hosni Mubarak fills the 10 remaining seats with his appointees.
Not everyone planning to cast their ballots on Sunday, however, were NDP supporters.
“I’m going to vote for the [liberal opposition] Wafd party because their candidate is decent,” said a 30-year-old taxi driver in Cairo, who gave his name only as Mustafa. “I’d vote for any candidate who isn’t NDP.”
Focus on Muslim Brotherhood
Much attention is focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, the only serious organised opposition, which is predicted to win far fewer seats than the fifth of Parliament it secured in the last election in 2005.
Rights groups say the election has already been compromised by the arrests of opposition activists and restrictions on their candidates.
Eleven Brotherhood supporters were sentenced this week to two years in jail for handing out the group’s leaflets and campaigning.
Egypt bans using religious slogans in campaigns, a hallmark of the Islamist group.
“The elections are already fatally compromised,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch.
“It is not going to be a fair and free election,” said Malinowski, part of a delegation from the New York-based rights group visiting Egypt for the election.
Rights groups say the election, which consistently return NDP-dominated parliaments, are routinely spoiled by fraud at the ballot box, a claim denied by the government, which has pledged to hold a fair vote.
Local civil society groups have complained that the authorities rejected requests for thousands of permits to monitor the vote and the count, while the electoral commission says it granted more than 6 000 permits.
Egypt does not allow foreign election observers.
The NDP is running about 800 candidates. Legal opposition parties, the majority of which have no representation in the outgoing Parliament, are running about 450 candidates.
The election is being closely watched for an indication of how the government will conduct the far more important presidential election in 2011.
Mubarak (82) has not yet said whether he will run in the next election. But the former air force chief’s eventual successor will most likely come from his ruling NDP or the military. – AFP