By Julian Jones
CAIRO, Egypt (WNL) -- With two stages of the three-stage Egyptian parliamentary elections already completed, it is already clear that the inevitable has once again happened. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which has held power in one form or another since the July Revolution of 1952, has once again secured a very safe majority for the next five years.
Already there have been allegations by opposition parties and human rights groups of officially inspired bullying, harassment and police heavy-handedness to help secure a majority for the ruling party. However, most Egyptians have conceded that although these elections are by no means perfect, they are at least "more democratic" than previous polls. Often described as the most heavily rigged, the parliamentary elections of 1995 gave 415 out of 444 seats to the ruling NDP, and about 60 people lost their lives during the campaign.
Due to the high level of controversy surrounding the 1995 elections, a recent judicial decision set directives to have judges present at polling stations this year to ensure that voting be "free and fair."
However, candidates representing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement, have complained of police interference and official harassment. According to Essam El-Aryan, a senior Brotherhood member who himself spent five years in Egyptian jails, hundreds of their supporters and candidates were arrested in the run up to these elections. The government accuses the Brotherhood of being a violent extremist organization, committed to overthrowing the regime at any cost.
During the first round of voting held on Oct. 18, scuffles broke out at polling stations in northern Egypt between security forces and Brotherhood supporters who claim to have been prevented from entering polling stations. One person was killed and more than 50 people injured when police used bullets and tear gas against protesters.
Arrests of Brotherhood supporters prior to voting in the country's second city, Alexandria, led the Brotherhood's first female candidate, Jihan El-Halafawi, to call for the cancellation of elections in her constituency. The government used a legal technicality to go ahead with the polls anyway.
Despite police interference and arrests, Muslim Brotherhood candidates, standing as independents, have made surprise gains. In the first round of polling, six of the 150 seats being contested went to Brotherhood-supported independent candidates, while the NDP won 118, leaving the other opposition parties with only 5 seats.
The second round of voting held on Oct. 29 has seen a similar trend, with Brotherhood candidates forcing the NDP hopefuls to run-offs to be held Nov. 4. Once again, voting was marred by violence with several dozen people being injured in clashes in the Nile Delta, according to Egypt's semi-official newspaper, Al-Ahram.
The real test of the government's commitment to "free and fair" elections will come on Nov. 8 when the voting moves to the bustling metropolis of Cairo. Here, the country's westernized elite will be voting alongside the intelligentsia, the religious establishment and the uneducated urban poor. The potential for violence is higher here than elsewhere, due to the sheer number of people crammed into the city. Tension is already running high in the city's mosques and on university campuses. Protestors are accusing the government of betraying their Palestinian "brethren" by not supporting them in the current crisis opposing Palestinians to Israeli security forces.
Symbols of democracy adorn every building and square in the center of Cairo, but already, heavily armed riot police are taking up position, anticipating trouble from supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are becoming more vocal as they watch television images of young Palestinian protesters being shot.
There is no doubt that the ruling NDP party will return to Parliament with an overwhelming majority, but its absolute control of Egyptian politics is being slowly eroded by Islamic parties such as the Brotherhood. Urban poverty, unemployment, a stagnant economy, corruption and events elsewhere in the region can only bolster support for parties seeking political plurality and change. "How can the government claim to be in control of the Islamists," asks Nihad Abu'l Qamsan, a lawyer helping to educate women of Cairo's slum districts, "when they are present in every alley and every house in Egypt?"
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )