Tension is already in the air over Egypt's parliamentary elections to be held later this year.
President Hosni Mubarak last April promised the Trade Union Federation that the government would strive to make voting fairer than last time.
In 1995, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) took 94 percent of the 444 seats contested. Around 60 people were killed and over 400 were wounded in the worst election violence Egypt has ever seen.
Analysts in Cairo say current tensions follow amendments passed in parliament earlier in April which transfer responsibility for supervising polling stations from the police to the judiciary, a major demand of the opposition after the 1995 fiasco.
But the tiny opposition caucus in parliament spoke out against the law as a blatant piece of window dressing that won't stop the government from making sure it gets the results it wants.
Firstly, they said, the judicial supervision will not be as complete as the government maintains. There are nearly 10,000 judges in the country and the state intends to nominate 5,000 to supervise over 40,000 polling stations.
The opposition Wafd Party has asked for transparent ballot boxes to be used instead of the traditional wooden ones, and for voters to be required to sign their names when they turn up to vote. It wants voting staggered over several days to ensure the judges get a fair whack at supervising the process. All the requests were rejected.
Egyptian rights groups also say the election law is as inadequate as judicial cover will be. The Interior Ministry will retain control of the register of voters. Opponents say it could harass campaign workers in the run-up to election day, or arrest and detain the candidates themselves, or prevent their supporters from getting into polling stations. All of these abuses were widespread during the 1995 election.
The main target then was the Muslim Brotherhood, but it hit other opposition groups too when vote-rigging and police bias in favor of pro-government candidates got out of hand.
In the five years since the farce that was then described as a "festival of democracy" by Information Minister Safwat Al Sherif, the Court of Cassation has invalidated the election of more than one third of parliament's current members. Parliament speaker Fathi Sorour, a leading figure in the NDP ruling elite close to Mubarak, has refused to implement any of the verdicts.
Mubarak obviously doesn't want the vote to be the embarrassing whitewash it was the last time, but the state will continue to seek two goals - preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from getting a single member into parliament, and maintaining the NDP's clear majority.
The government has continued its crackdown on journalists and writers affiliated to the opposition. Three journalists from the Islamist Al Shaab newspaper were sentenced to two years in prison and fined LE20, 000 each for libeling Agriculture Minister Yousef Wali.
It was the second time for editor-in-chief Magdy Hussein, journalist Salah Bedeiwi and cartoonist Essam Hanafi - to be sentenced for the same "crime."
The Court of Cassation ordered a retrial late last year because, in the first, the minister managed to avoid being called as a witness.
This was one of the main aims of the paper's campaign in the first place - to pull off a legal coup by publicly grilling a key state figure. A fourth journalist, Al Shaab writer Adel Hussein, was fined LE20,000, as he was in the original trial, too. The paper's campaign, which ran for several months last year, accused Wali of treason for actively pursuing a policy of normalization with Israel in agriculture, and for endangering Egyptian lives by approving
genetically modified food products.
Earlier this year, the Education Ministry decided to discipline 36 teachers from south Egypt for taking part in a workshop teaching democratic values to schoolchildren. The course was organized by a human rights organization, the Group for Democratic Development.
The ministry questioned the teachers on the advice of the security services for acting without official approval and for cooperating with "a dubious body" - a human rights group.
The penalty was pay deductions ranging from 19 days to two months and for one educator, a transfer to an administrative position - losing his previous job as director of the social studies curriculum for several local schools.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )