x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Egypt elects parliament after round-up of opposition

Egyptians voted today in a parliamentary election marred by a crackdown on the main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a ban on international monitors.

CAIRO // Egyptians voted today in a parliamentary election that was marred by a crackdown on the main opposition movement and on independent media, as well as tensions with the United States over the government's insistence on barring international monitors.

In the run-up to the vote, at least 1,200 supporters of the 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.

The ruling National Democratic Party appeared determined to restore its majority over the new, 508-seat parliament. That hold was weakened in the last election, in 2005, when the Muslim Brotherhood surprised everyone by winning a fifth of the legislature, its strongest showing ever.

The 2005 vote was marred by widespread rigging, according to rights groups, and 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. Many observers feared the same this year.

Tens of thousands of police deployed at polling stations around the country today. Only a trickle of voters was seen at most polling stations throughout Sunday morning, when most people were at their jobs.

"The security is running the show," said Hosny Ragab, a 60-year-old monitor, who said he was ordered out of a polling center at al-Raml in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria. "I showed them my election commission accreditation, but they insisted that I leave."

There were scattered reports of violence. In the southern city of Qena, supporters of the local Brotherhood candidate threw firebombs at police after they were barred from a polling station, police said.

The Brotherhood's main website, Ikhwanonline, was blocked to users inside Egypt on today, said Abdel-Gelil el-Sharnoubi, who runs the site, 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 said. "The regime does not tolerate other opinions or open a window for others to say something which it does not believe in."

Egypt has 41 million registered voters, but turnout has traditionally been very low - around 25 per cent in 2005. Secular opposition parties are weak, with little public support and limited resources.

Ahead of today's vote, Egypt rejected US calls to allow foreign monitors to observe the election, accusing its ally of trying to play the role of "overseer".

Egypt argued there were enough local monitors to do the job. But civil society groups say that out of hundreds of activists who applied, the election committee authorised only dozens to monitor.