Egypt’s ruling party is set to tighten its grip on power after today’s parliamentary election, dealing a blow to its main Islamist rival whose candidates accused authorities of rigging the vote.
Groups including Human Rights Watch have accused President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party of undermining free elections by cracking down on other candidates including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s biggest opposition group. The NDP, which fielded more than six times as many candidates as its rival, has denied charges of any fraud.
Analysts, including Amr El-Shobaki at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, say the government wants to drive the Brotherhood out of politics ahead of next year’s presidential election that could see the first change of leadership in three decades.
“The NDP brings whoever it wants to power,” Ibrahim Sabri, a 46-year-old mechanic, said in an interview outside a polling station in central Cairo. “There is nothing that makes me want to vote.”
The lack of a designated successor to Mubarak, 82, who has ruled Egypt since 1981 and hasn’t said whether he’ll seek another six-year term, has fueled concern that a succession crisis may lead to political unrest. That could endanger foreign investment needed to create jobs and expand output in the most populous Arab country.
“One reason for the crackdown is that the regime wants to keep things under control before the presidential election,” said Moustafa El-Husseini, a political commentator and author of the coming book “Egypt on the Brink of the Unknown.”
Police rounded up hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters ahead of the vote. The Islamist group, which fields candidates as independents to bypass an official ban on its activities, said last week that 1,200 of its supporters have been detained.
The group accused authorities of barring its candidates and their staff from entering polling stations, as well as using violence to deter their supporters from voting. Mohamed Kamal, a senior ruling party official, told reporters that the charge was “totally untrue.”
Initial results will start trickling in tomorrow, while the final outcome will be announced on Nov. 30, according to the High Election Commission.
Stocks plunged in March when Mubarak underwent surgery to have his gallbladder removed, sending the benchmark EGX30 index down 6.7 percent in a week. The index’s 4.6 percent gain in dollar terms this year is less than half of the increase in the MSCI Emerging Markets benchmark.
Mubarak’s opponents say the president is grooming his son Gamal to succeed him, a charge both men deny. The younger Mubarak has been among the drivers of economic policy since 2004 as Egypt cut income tax rates and sold state-owned companies to buyers including Turin-based Intesa Sanpaolo SpA, Italy’s second-biggest bank.
The resulting increase in foreign investment helped the economy grow at an average pace of 7 percent in the three years before the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. Gamal Mubarak’s critics say the changes have widened the gap between rich and poor and left the latter grappling with an inflation rate that has exceeded 10 percent in the past two years.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters credit the group with helping poor Egyptians by providing them with affordable services including health and education through a network of charities nationwide.
In the Cairo district of Boulak El-Dakrour, garbage is piled in the narrow, unpaved streets. Resident Nader El-Husseini, a 27-year-old interpreter, said he voted for two Brotherhood candidates because “they are the only people who offer services and look after the interests of their constituents.”
“Nobody else helps the people,” he said. “Look around you, Boulak is all garbage.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has about 130 candidates vying for seats in the 508-member house. The NDP has fielded more than 800 candidates.
“We have been told, and it seems to be true, that monitors of opposition candidates, especially independents representing the Muslim Brotherhood, have been barred from entering the polling stations to observe,” Daniel Williams, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said by telephone from Alexandria, in northern Egypt.
The Egyptian government has rejected a call from the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to allow international observers, saying it is capable of running a fair and free election, monitored by domestic civil society groups
Sameh El-Kashef, a spokesman for the High Election Commission, the body in charge of running the vote, told reporters that violations during the day didn’t have “any impact on the electoral process.”
Supporters of one candidate fired shots in the province of Gharbiyyah, north of Cairo, forcing officials to briefly shut the polling station, he said. Other acts of violence included an attempted attack with two Molotov cocktails on a polling station in southern Egypt that left one man injured, said Interior Ministry spokesman Tarek Attiya.
The Brotherhood won one-fifth of parliament seats in 2005, in a vote that coincided with U.S. calls for President Mubarak to expand political freedoms, pressure that has since waned.
After the 2005 ballot, the government passed constitutional amendments that human rights groups say limited judicial supervision over polls. The amendments also banned the use of religion for political ends, in what the Brotherhood says was an attempt to drive it out of politics and pave the way for a succession of power from Mubarak to his son.
Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has been mentioned by many analysts, including the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, as a presidential contender.
Over the past two months, Gamal Mubarak, 47, a former investment banker, has campaigned to promote the party’s economic program for the next five years. The pledges include doubling the wages of public-sector workers. The government agreed this month to raise the minimum wage to 400 pounds ($69) from 35 pounds.
Other NDP policies, such as reducing subsidies, may prove less popular. Discontent about the rising cost of living and low wages sparked riots in 2008.
The government’s main aim will be “to achieve economic growth to generate enough jobs as well as to implement anti-poverty policies,” Reham El-Desoki, senior economist at Cairo- based investment bank Beltone Financial, said by e-mail. “You will see a lot of social spending until the presidential election.”