Egypt election campaign 311.
(photo credit: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
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 US over the government's insistence on barring international monitors.
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In the run-up to the vote, at least 1,200 supporters of the Islamic fundamentalist 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. On Sunday, Abdel-Gelil el-Sharnoubi, who runs the Brotherhood's website Ikhwanonline, said the site has been blocked to users inside Egypt 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 told The Associated Press. "The regime does not tolerate other opinions or open a window for others to say something which it does not believe in."
Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, is expected to maintain control of the new, 508-seat legislature. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, was not expected to fare as well as it did in the last election in 2005 when it surprised the nation with its strong showing and won a fifth of parliament seats.
The clampdown suggests the regime is striving to guarantee its firm grip on power ahead of more crucial presidential elections set for next year. It is a sign of nervousness at an uncertain time, when there are questions over 82-year-old Mubarak's health and persistent street protests over economic hardships such as high food prices, low wages and unemployment.
About 40 percent of Egypt's 80 million people live below or close to the poverty line, surviving on about $2 a day, according to the UN.
Mubarak 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. The president is widely thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him.
Egypt, a close American ally, has rejected US calls to allow foreign monitors to observe the election. The government argued that there were enough local monitors to do the job, but civil society groups have complained of delays in accrediting their monitors.
The refusal to allow foreign monitors was a point of tension with the United States. Egypt accused Washington of trying to play the role of "overseer" and not respecting its sovereignty.
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 14 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.