Egypt polls kick off amid high opposition hopes

Egypt polls kick off amid high opposition hopes

Egyptians start electing new parliament amid resurgence of banned Muslim Brotherhood.

By Jean-Marc Mojon – CAIRO

Egyptians started electing a new parliament Wednesday after a campaign that saw deep division among the secular opposition and a resurgence of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Thousands of polling stations started opening at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) in the first round of the first phase of the month-long parliamentary elections.

“The participation of the nation’s sons and daughters is key to the success of the next parliamentary elections in the same way it was key to the success of the presidential poll,” President Hosni Mubarak said in a televised address on Tuesday night.

Turnout barely topped 10 percent in the previous elections. They were dominated by Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which controls 404 out of the 454 seats in parliament.

In the NDP bastion of Helwan in southern Cairo, supporters of Military Production Minister Sayed Meshaal were neatly lined up outside polling stations before they even opened.

“I will vote for Sayed Meshaal because he’s NDP and he promised us to create jobs for the youth and offer training,” said Hatem Tawfiq, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his favourite candidate.

While the presidential election in which Mubarak swept to a fifth six-year mandate two months ago saw an unprecedented national debate on reform, the legislative polls are a very local and personalised affair where votes are lost and won with promises for micro-projects, jobs and bribes.

The official unemployment rate is close to 10 percent but observers put the figure at twice that.

The first round of polling involves close to 11 million voters, more than 10,000 ballot boxes and in excess of 1,600 candidates vying for 164 parliamentary seats.

Results of the first round are expected on Thursday and any run-offs are due to be contested on November 15, before the second phase of polling kicks off five days later.

Civil monitors have expressed hope that their increased presence in and around polling stations will allow more transparent elections than in previous years but have continued to raise doubts over the counting process.

“One has to admit that the conditions in which the campaign took place were much better than those that prevailed in previous elections,” said Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a political analyst from the Al-Ahram Research Centre.

The opposition is hoping to make substantial gains during these elections, which will take place under international scrutiny, as the United States continues its push for democracy in the Middle East.

The banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood is already the largest opposition force in parliament with 15 seats and it hopes to cash in on the unprecedented level of freedom it was granted during the campaign.

During a run-up to the elections which was subdued by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Islamist movement led by far the most aggressive and organised campaign, under the slogan “Islam is the solution”.

Its leaders have said they hoped to secure 50 seats in the next parliament but some election watchers have warned the NDP could seek to limit the Brotherhood’s political rise by rigging the results.

The other main opposition bloc which is made up of several movements – including the Kefaya group, the liberal Wafd, the Marxist Tagammu and the Nasserist party – has been plagued by internal divisions.

The stakes are high for the opposition as a controversial constitutional amendment introduced by Mubarak earlier this year states that a party will need to control at least five percent of seats in parliament to field a candidate in the 2011 presidential election.