CAIRO – Egyptians began voting Sunday in a parliamentary election preceded by a crackdown on the main opposition movement and on independent media and tensions with the U.S. over the government's insistence on barring international monitors.
In the run-up to the vote, at least 1,200 supporters of the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood were arrested in one of the most sweeping crackdowns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago. On Sunday, Abdel-Gelil el-Sharnoubi, who runs the Brotherhood's website Ikhwanonline, said the site has been blocked to users inside Egypt though several other Brotherhood-affiliated websites remained accessible.
"The regime is using a 1940's censorship mentality and decided to bury its head in the sand," he told The Associated Press. "The regime does not tolerate other opinions or open a window for others to say something which it does not believe in."
Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, is expected to maintain control of the new, 508-seat legislature. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, was not expected to fare as well as it did in the last election in 2005 when it surprised the nation with its strong showing and won a fifth of parliament seats.
The clampdown suggests the regime is striving to guarantee its firm grip on power ahead of more crucial presidential elections set for next year. It is a sign of nervousness at an uncertain time, when there are questions over 82-year-old Mubarak's health and persistent street protests over economic hardships such as high food prices, low wages and unemployment.
About 40 percent of Egypt's 80 million people live below or close to the poverty line, surviving on about $2 a day, according to the U.N.
Mubarak has yet to say whether he intends to run for another, six-year term, but top officials from his National Democratic Party say he is the party's candidate. The president is widely thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him.
Egypt, a close American ally, has rejected U.S. calls to allow foreign monitors to observe the election. The government argued that there were enough local monitors to do the job, but civil society groups have complained of delays in accrediting their monitors.
The refusal to allow foreign monitors was a point of tension with the United States. Egypt accused Washington of trying to play the role of "overseer" and not respecting its sovereignty.
Police and armed gangs have broken up Brotherhood campaign events — even attacking the movement's top parliament member — in what appeared to be a determined effort by the government to shut out its top rival.
The last parliamentary vote in 2005 brought widespread violence that killed 14 people, in most cases when mobs rioted trying to get into polling stations closed by police to keep out opposition voters. There were also reports of rigging ballot boxes.
Egyptians were casting votes Sunday under heavy security, with tens of thousands of police deployed across the nation in anticipation of violence. Police checked voters' identity before allowing them into polling stations, many of which were draped by campaign banners and posters.
Streets leading to polling stations in some Cairo districts were closed to vehicular traffic.
"I am just going to work," Hamdy Hussein, a 40-year-old bank employee, said as he walked past a polling station in the central Cairo neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab, where Parliament Speaker Fathi Sorour is running. "I cannot be bothered to vote. Do you think these candidates who are spending millions of pounds are doing so to serve the people?"
Early voting Sunday was marred by a number of violations in Cairo and Alexandria, the country's second largest city on the Mediterranean.
Witnesses said there was harassment of opposition supporters and violations of a ban on campaigning outside and inside polling stations. Campaigning was supposed to have halted by midnight Friday, but candidates continued Saturday and Sunday to send their supporters out on the streets, playing music and touring the streets in pickup trucks festooned with giant posters and banners.
In the Cairo suburb of Nasr City, supporters of NDP candidate and Oil Minister Sameh Fahmi, played music outside polling stations Sunday. On Saturday, an NDP candidate, millionaire businessman Mohammed Abul-Einein, sent a convoy of pickup trucks laden with his supporters roaming the streets of the suburb of Giza, with music blaring from loudspeakers. Many of the supporters, all fighting age males, carried clubs.
In the central Cairo district of Abdeen Sunday, police ordered out representatives of the Brotherhood candidate Gamal Hanafy, arguing that their permits did not have all the required official stamps. In Alexandria, representatives of the Brotherhood candidate in the central district of al-Raml said they too were denied access.
Hosny Ragab, a 60-year-old monitor, said he was ordered out of the polling center at al-Raml where an NDP cabinet minister, Abdel-Salam Mahgoub, is locked in battle with Muslim Brotherhood candidate Sobhy Saleh.
"I showed them my election commission accreditation, but they insisted that I leave. The security is running the show," he said as rival supporters of Mahgoub and Saleh gathered outside the polling station chanting and taunting each other in an ominous face-off.
Women later arrived at the same voting center by the busload and told by escorts to vote for Mahgoub, also a former governor of Alexandria. Speaking to The Associated Press outside the polling center, Mahgoub denied any irregularities.
Egypt has 41 million registered voters, but turnout has traditionally been very low and only 30 to 35 percent of the electorate were expected to vote.
Sunday is the start of the working week in Egypt, but traffic in Cairo, a city of about 18 million, was thinner than usual in the morning. Schools were closed and many chose to stay at home fearing violence on the streets.
In Alexandria, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, scores of truckloads of riot police were deployed close to polling stations and traffic was exceptionally thin during what is normally the city's morning rush hour.
Associated Press correspondent Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report from Alexandria, Egypt.