Muslim Brotherhood to boycott election

Muslim Brotherhood to boycott election

Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful opposition movement in the country, is to boycott today”s municipal elections after hundreds of members were arrested or prevented from standing.

The move by the Brotherhood, which is officially outlawed but represented by independent MPs in parliament, will have little impact on the results, with 90% of seats certain to go to President Hosni Mubarak”s National Democratic party.

But it will reinforce the impression of a government refusing to allow any significant opposition, Islamist or otherwise, and ignoring international criticism of Mubarak”s authoritarian instincts.

The Brotherhood says 800 members have been arrested and thousands more intimidated and harassed in an organised crackdown in recent weeks to prevent them registering as candidates.

“We want the people to know who is trying to reform and who is lying and corrupt, who is respecting the law and who is obeying it,” Mahdi Akef, the brotherhood”s “supreme guide”, said in a statement yesterday announcing the withdrawal from “farcical” polls.

The NDP is set to field a candidate for every one of the 52,000 council seats that will be contested in today”s election.

The political situation in Egypt – the most populous country in the Arab world – is closely watched. But US pressure for Middle East liberalisation after the war in Iraq has given way to acquiescence in a status quo that most observers say will change only once Mubarak has gone.

The president is 79 and in his fourth consecutive term of office and has no designated successor, though he is widely suspected of preparing to hand power to his son Gamal, a businessman.

“The Brotherhood”s decision will reinforce the perception that the NDP does not want to share power,” said Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour of the Wafd, a small secular opposition party that has also faced trouble fielding candidates.

The Brotherhood says it simply wants to promote peaceful and democratic reform to bring about an Islamic state and tackle corruption. But critics say it cannot be trusted and hint that its violent past has never been renounced. Egypt”s constitution bans political parties based on religion.

Today”s elections follow Sunday”s opposition attempt to organise a general strike, which saw many employees stay at home but little trouble on the streets because of massive pre-emptive action by the security forces. The one exception was the Nile Delta industrial city of Mahalla, where trouble continued for a second day yesterday, with striking workers clashing with police, who fired tear gas to disperse crowds. Activists had used text messages and Facebook to coordinate protests.

In the background is a simmering economic crisis that has seen steep rises in the prices of bread, rice and cooking oil, all staples of Egyptian daily cooking, leaving ordinary people in despair as wages have not kept up with inflation.

“We are disappointed with what happened, but at least our views were heard,” said George Ishaq, a leader of the opposition movement Kefaya (Enough). “It should be seen as a day that will hopefully spark more days ahead. The government had to send thousands of troops to the streets to stop us from showing their failures.”

The game of cat and mouse between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood – and shifting patterns of accommodation and confrontation – has been part of Egypt”s political landscape for decades.