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 — even attacking 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 on 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 already appealed the decision and it is not clear if the government will implement it ahead of the Nov. 28 contests.
Authorities have also reined in the media, shutting several independent TV stations and forcing critics off the air on other channels.
The clampdown suggests 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 82-year-old Mubarak's health and when the country has seen a year of low-level but persistent street protests — not over political reform but over issues that hit closer to Egyptians' daily lives like high food prices, low wages and unemployment.
The last parliament election, in 2005, saw widespread violence that killed at least 10 people, in most cases when mobs rioted 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 around the country in this election, 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, organizing live music performances and often handing out food and other gifts to supporters.
Still, turnout in Egyptian elections is chronically low, around 25 percent in the 2005 vote. The sense that results are a foregone conclusion could only depress it 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 Mubarak's regime created a wave of support from reformists. But the buzz has largely fizzled, something that many blame on 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, believed to be set on a track to succeed his father.
Hosni Mubarak acknowledged in a Nov. 10 speech to NDP leaders that the fruits of economic liberalization have not reached all Egyptians.
"There are those poor and simple people who endure the hardships of life, those from classes with limited income who suffer the rising prices and cost of living and those who worry about the future of their families," he said. "We contest these elections with our eyes on them."
Since 2005, Egypt's economy has stormed ahead with growth surpassing 7 percent at times — and even with the world economic crisis, the rate has stayed at 4 or 5 percent. But that hasn't been enough to create hundreds of thousands of jobs needed annually for a swelling population of 80 million or to generate revenues necessary to maintain basic services.
The gap between the poor and rich has widened, with around 40 percent of the population living under or near the poverty line of $2 a day, according to the World Bank.
The government denies vote fraud in the past and insists Sunday's vote will be clean.
Gihad Ouda, a senior NDP member, argues that a fair election is in the party's interest, since it needs to ensure legitimacy in the upcoming presidential ballot. "We cannot allow this legitimacy to be touched," he told The Associated Press.
The government is clearly sensitive over the issue. It has barred international observers of the vote as an infringement of Egypt's sovereignty. When the United States urged it to accept such observers, Egypt lashed back with a harshly worded denunciation saying Washington was acting like an "overseer."
The tough hand has surprised some, given that the Brotherhood had already been severely weakened by waves of arrests since 2005.
"The regime is inexplicably behaving tensely when in fact it is not facing any major challenges," said Bahey-eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Unlike in previous elections, judges will not be monitoring polling stations, a provision that was seen as offering at least some hindrance on vote fraud. In 2007, the government amended the constitution so that polls will now be supervised by a government-appointed body instead.
Domestic rights groups, in theory allowed to monitor voting, complain of delays in receiving accreditation and of other restrictions.
Hassan links the hard line to the presidential election. In the face of the uncertainly, the regime likely wants to squelch pockets of dissent it tolerated in the past.
Mubarak, in power since 1981, has yet to announce whether he will run for another six-year term in office, though his party's top officials say he will be the NDP candidate. He underwent gall bladder surgery earlier this year in Germany. While he remains robust, many question whether he will serve another full term, ending when he is almost 90.
That has focused attention on his son Gamal. But the idea of him inheriting power is widely unpopular, and even the NDP is believed to be divided.
If the elder Mubarak runs, "there is no guarantee that he will serve his full term and there is not even a minimum of an agreement within the party as to who should succeed him," Hassan said. "This is a source of fear and concern in a regime that is not accustomed to settling its differences democratically."