Foregone Conclusion Poor Turnout as Muslim Brotherhood Boycotts Egyptian Elections

Local elections in Egypt saw a poor turnout Tuesday after the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood called for a boycott. The vote is taking place against a background of anger and demonstrations over rising food prices.

Turnout at Tuesday's local council elections in Egypt was poor after the Islamist opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood called for a boycott.

Although the official results will only be announced on Wednesday and over five successive days, the ruling National Democratic Party had already won 70 percent of the 52,000 seats before the polls even opened. The Muslim Brotherhood announced Monday it was going to boycott the election after thousands of its candidates were disqualified from standing.

Voting was even called off in the northern industrial city of Mahalla al-Kobra, which had been the scene of two days of food riots.

Thousands of people, including factory workers, junior office clerks, young people skipping school and political activists, marched through the streets of Mahalla al-Kobra on Sunday evening. Their numbers included those who had always been poor, and those who had watched the rising cost of living in Egypt eat into their modest prosperity.

They wanted to protest against the rising price of bread and demand an increase in their salaries. However hundreds of uniformed policemen and thugs in civilian clothes put paid to the dream of a peaceful protest. Police used tear gas and there were reports of shots being fired. The demonstrators responded by throwing bricks. Some took advantage of the chaos to carry out looting -- two schools went up in flames and computers and air-conditioning units were stolen.

The death toll at the end was at least two people, who were killed when a tear-gas grenade exploded next to them. Around 80 demonstrators were injured, some of them seriously, and police made around 150 arrests.

The street battle in Mahalla al-Kobra, located one and a half hours by car from Cairo, on Sunday evening might be considered normal in other parts of the Middle East. However such scenes are rare in the tightly run regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The government well remembers the bloody bread riots in the 1970s. Then, too, crowds gathered because food prices were rocketing. Hundreds of people died in the unrest.

Food Prices Rising

Today bread is once again scarce in Egypt and the prices of rice and cooking oil have nearly doubled in the past few months. This time, however, the authorities wanted to nip the protests in the bud.

For this reason, the authorities prohibited the general strike in Cairo, which had been called by the grassroots democratic alliance "Kefaya", various leftist parties and, initially, the well-organized Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The rebellious textile city of Mahalla, in which tens of thousands of discontented workers wanted to strike for higher minimum wages, was under close observation by the security forces. Whenever people gathered in the streets, the security forces intervened. They didn't want anything to disturb the cemetery-like peace in the Nile city ahead of Tuesday's local elections.

The Mubarak regime is nervous about the elections because of a change in the constitution that could -- at least in theory -- loosen its tight grip on power. Under new legislation, a candidate will be able to stand at the next presidential election in 2011 if he has, among other things, the support of a minimum of 140 local councils.

This opens up possibilities for the Muslim Brotherhood, who have long been a thorn in the regime's side. The reputation of the non-militant Islamist organization has been growing steadily, particularly among the many poor. The Brotherhood made it into the parliament by following a successful recipe: the group combines religion with social projects, portrays itself as the party of the "little people" and denounces state corruption.

Since 2005, it has been the strongest force in the opposition with 20 percent of the parliament's 454 seats. Its candidates would probably attract strong support in the local elections if they were above board.

Cairo has resorted to tried-and-tested means to prevent the Brotherhood from winning enough council seats to put forward an Islamist presidential candidate. Of the approximately 5,000 Muslim Brotherhood members who wanted to stand in the local council elections, only 21 were accepted by the election committee as candidates. More than 400 members of the party have been arrested in the past few months.

"I have been arrested six times," says one man. The man, a pious Muslim, has a round callus on his forehead from touching his forehead against his prayer mat when he prays five times a day. The man wanted to stand for the Muslim Brotherhood in the municipal elections. He took into account that he would probably be arrested. But then his party threw in the towel, just one day before the election.

Tactical Withdrawal

The Muslim Brotherhood held a press conference on Monday in their headquarters in Cairo's Manial district to announce a nationwide boycott of the local elections. The media-savvy Islamists had waited until the very last moment to break the news.

The conference room was packed with international media who listened attentively as the Brotherhood spokesman explained why his organization would not participate in the election. "We were forced to withdraw," said Ibrahim Hussein, floor leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliament. "We have an obligation to the nation, to the patient people who have already lost everything: their pride, their rights, their freedom," he continued. Therefore, he explained, the Brotherhood had decided "not to participate in the elections, irrespective of the consequences."

When Ibrahim points out that many of his party comrades were threatened, kidnapped and arrested so they would not stand as candidates, and then announces that they will do exactly that, his argument appears to make little sense. It's true that the Islamists want to challenge the elections afterwards, but they have little hope of success. The real reason behind the withdrawal is different: the outcome of the elections was already fixed, long before the first polling station opened its doors on Tuesday.

Mubarak's National Democratic Party will reap a resounding victory. Whether the Brotherhood had won 21 out of 52,000 seats would have made no difference. The dramatic surrender so soon before the election will make more of an impression than a few seats won.

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