In Egypt polls, ensuring Mubarak's return

Egyptians go to the polls next month to elect a new parliament. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and two coalitions of opposition parties will field candidates for the assembly’s 508 elected seats. The NDP is set to put forward one official nominee for each seat while the opposition coalitions plan to field a combined total of 750.

The outlawed and constantly persecuted Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition faction, is, paradoxically, permitted to back independents who are expected to run under the slogan, “Islam is the Solution,” making it all too clear who is behind them. While the Brotherhood expects to support 130-150 candidates, there could be as many as 2,500-3,000 more independents, the majority belonging to the NDP.

Although the winner, the NDP, is foreordained, opposition parties take part in polls with the aim of maintaining their status as contenders on the political scene. The NDP tolerates a weak opposition in order to project the notion that Egypt has a consultative system even if it is not a democracy. Even before the campaign was launched, the government began cracking down on the media, mobile phone texting, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Pro-government commentators are calling for restricted access to Facebook. The crack-down, routine during Egyptian election campaigns, is one of a collection of measures designed to ensure that the NDP will win at least 70 per cent of the seats in the national assembly. The other means the government is using are police intimidation of candidates and supporters and limiting the activities of the opposition.

So far, Egypt's official satellite provider, Nilesat, has closed four satellite broadcasters and 17 private television channels for violating regulations and another 20 channels are threatened with suspension of their licenses. The television regulatory authority has warned private channels against taking live material from satellite broadcasters other than Nilesat. Hardest hit by this restriction are channels which have booked live broadcasts from al-Jazeera which often angers autocratic Arab rulers.

The ministry of communications has also imposed restrictions on the use of mobile phone texting for disseminating news alerts. Permission will be granted to news agencies and registered parties but factions not approved by the government will be barred from texting political material. These entities include the Brotherhood and the National Association for Change established by Muhammmad Elbaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel peace prize laureate.

Elbaradei called on all opposition parties to boycott the poll, thereby denying it legitimacy. But the Brotherhood, which was closely allied to Elbaradei, broke ranks and argued that the best way to expose the government's misdeeds is by campaigning against the NDP.

The press has also been targeted. The editor of an independent daily, al-Destour, Ibrahim Essa, was recently dismissed by the paper's pro-government owners, only hours after being told not to publish an article by Elbaradei who is highly critical of governmental mismanagement and corruption.

Eissa predicted 48 hours before his dismissal, “Perhaps soon we'll see urgent legislation to snuff out Egyptians’ freedom of expression on the internet.” Since then, leading loyalist commentators have suggested restrictions on Facebook, which has been widely used by the opposition to get out the anti-NDP message. The government is clearly concerned that a quarter of a million people have accessed Elbaradei's Facebook page.
 
Muhammad Habib, a senior Brotherhood figure, said: “Independent journalism has a crucial role in keeping watch over the regime and exposing fraud or abuse of power, particularly during elections.” At least 164 of the movement’s members, the majority of them election workers, have been detained by the police. Brotherhood spokesman, Essam el-Arian said the arrests were intended to “intimidate” the movement following its decision to contest the election. In 2005, the Brotherhood alarmed the NDP and the government by taking 88 seats in the then 444-member assembly. Since then thousands of senior Brotherhood figures, financiers and activists have been imprisoned.

The government is determined that the NDP will win the election by a landslide since the poll results could have an impact on the deliberations over who will succeed octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak who has reigned since 1981. While he has never named a vice president or an heir, he has groomed his younger son Gamal, to take over. But there is opposition to him in the NDP and the powerful military as well as among the people who say they do not want Egypt to become a hereditary republic.

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