Egypt gives main oppn group more space before election

Egypt gives main oppn group more space before election
CAIRO — Egyptian authorities are giving the outlawed main opposition group unusual leeway in the run-up to parliamentary elections, in what the group says is an attempt to enhance the vote’s credibility.

The group’s activists were arrested and their supporters blocked from voting in Egypt’s last parliamentary elections in 1995 and 2000. Its members, who stand as independents, still won 17 seats, making them the biggest opposition bloc.

But with a few weeks to go before the elections begin in November, the authorities are releasing instead of arresting activists and the group’s candidates have been allowed to register for the vote largely unimpeded.

Two of the main state newspapers have also published interviews with the group’s leaders in the last two weeks.

Al Ahram daily yesterday printed what the group said was the first full-length interview in living memory with their leader in the state-owned paper.

“There is the start of a change which I feel as a man who has been exposed to oppression. I now feel that the treatment is better and I pray to God that it will continue in this way,” the group’s leader Mohamed Mahdi Akef told the paper.

Leading activist Essam El Erian was released from prison this week. He was one of the last of hundreds of activists still jailed from May, when the group held protests demanding greater political freedoms.

Deputy leader Mohamed Habib told Reuters the release of Erian and coverage of the group by Al Ahram were part of government efforts to project the image of greater political tolerance ahead of the election.

“This is natural and logical in view of the political movement going on in Egypt — that the regime would want to improve its image — especially as it is approaching parliamentary elections,” he said.

Habib has also said foreign calls for political reform in Egypt, which held its first multi-candidate presidential election in September, have made it tougher for the government to put pressure on the opposition before the elections.