CAIRO: The violence that marred Egypt’s parliamentary election has called into question the sincerity of President Hosni Mubarak’s vow, under U.S. pressure, to open up the country’s political system.
Police crackdowns on voters not only brought sharp criticism from Washington, they also failed to blunt gains by the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which won at least 88 seats in the new 454-member parliament, up from only 15 before.
At least 10 people died in violence over the three stages of voting that began Nov. 9.
The final vote on Wednesday was especially bloody – leaving eight people, including a 14-year-old boy, dead from gunfire.
Washington said the violent conduct by security forces raised concerns over Egypt’s "commitment to democracy and freedom, tacitly acknowledging a setback in the Bush administration policy of spreading democracy in the Middle East.
The comments, issued by the State Department, were a rare and harsh critique of Mubarak, Washington’s strongest regional ally.
Despite the mayhem at polling places and arrests of Brotherhood supporters, the balloting produced an astonishing increase in the seats controlled by the country’s main fundamentalist group.
Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party still controls an overwhelming majority in parliament, but will have to deal with a newly empowered opposition.
Even before the election began, questions arose about Mubarak’s commitment to reform as his government took steps to politically emasculate any secular or liberal opposition. Ayman Nour, Mubarak’s strongest challenger in the September presidential vote, for example,went into the election charged with forgery – amid widespread belief the allegations were trumped up to discredit him.
Nour has again been jailed, prompting Human Rights Watch to link his treatment to the election violence.
"Ayman Nour’s trial, like the violence against voters in the parliamentary elections, is a terrible advertisement for President Mubarak’s supposed reform agenda,and for Egypt’s judiciary, said Joe Stork, deputy director of the rights group’s Middle East division.
"In the courtroom, as at the voting booths, there is little tolerance for challenges to the ruling party’s hegemony, Stork said.
When it became clear the Brotherhood was making astounding electoral gains after a relatively peaceful first round of voting, police started using tear gas, rubber bullets and ammunition to block its supporters from reaching the polls. Thugs armed with clubs,machetes and knives also attacked voters, while police watched nearby.
But such actions only seemed to energize Brotherhood backers: Some also resorted to violence and appeared to try to provoke security forces.
The Mubarak government has blamed the Brotherhood, saying it deliberately provoked the violence.
Many Egyptians – even some in the Brotherhood – believe the government may have wanted some Brotherhood gains as a warning to his secular opposition and the United States that too much reform pressure on Mubarak will strengthen Islamic fundamentalists.
"The [government] is using us . to scare the (Christian) Copts, the left, and the West. This is a well-known policy that they use in different forms, said Khairat el-Shater, a top Brotherhood figure who was key to designing the movement’s election strategy.
Hala Mustafa – a disgruntled ruling party member and editor of Democracy Review, an academic journal that has recently taken an independent line – said Mubarak’s government "wanted to have the Muslim Brotherhood as its only real opposition to highlight its moderation.
"The government has created a situation where the only alternative to Mubarak now is a fundamentalist Islamic alternative, she said.
Rifaat el-Saeed, a leader of the nearly powerless left-wing Tagammu Party, said some in the government "wanted to frighten the secular opposition and the United States by letting the Islamist genie out of the bottle.
"The problem is they apparently forgot that you never can put the genie back in the bottle, he said.
The voting done, Egyptians now look to the remainder of the 77-year-old Mubarak’s term, which expires in 2011.
Mubarak will have nearly six years to rebuild a secular coalition – should he wish to – and, possibly, reverse Brotherhood gains. Under that scenario, he would stand a good chance of leaving a moderate successor.
But, should he die before repairing ties with liberals and secular politicians, it appears certain – absent military intervention – that the Brotherhood would become a major, if not the major, player in post- Mubarak Egypt. – AP