By MAGGIE MICHAEL and SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press
Sun Nov 28,2010
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.
President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party is expected to maintain control of the new legislature, which will have 508 seats.
More than 1,000 supporters of the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested during the campaign — one of the most sweeping crackdowns to silence critics since Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago. 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 at least 10 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 under heavy security, with tens of thousands of police deployed across the nation of 80 million 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. "I cannot be bothered to vote. Do you think these candidates who are spending millions of pounds are doing so to serve the people?"
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.
The Muslim Brotherhood made a surprisingly strong showing in 2005, winning a fifth of seats even after supporters were rounded up ahead of the vote and many were barred from reaching polling stations on election day. A sustained government crackdown since then has weakened the country's main opposition movement and it is unlikely to repeat that feat in Sunday's vote.
The Brotherhood have been outlawed for nearly 60 years but they field candidates as independents.
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 the Mediterranean port city of 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.
The election comes ahead of next year's crucial presidential vote. Mubarak, in power since 1981, 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.
Mubarak, 82, is widely thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him. The younger Mubarak, the de facto leader of the ruling party, denies any presidential ambition.
Associated Press correspondent Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report from Alexandria, Egypt.