CAIRO — Under a cloud of intimidation and suppression, Egyptians will vote Sunday in parliamentary elections that already have been denounced as a charade aimed at prolonging the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
Egyptian authorities have jailed Mubarak's opponents, blocked rallies, clamped down on independent news media and angrily rejected calls by the United States and others to allow international observers to monitor the vote.
With Egypt struggling with economic stagnation and simmering sectarian tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, critics say the electoral moves represent an unusually brazen effort by the party to silence its opponents before next year, when the 82-year-old Mubarak is expected to seek a sixth term despite his failing health.
"There are very pessimistic expectations for these elections among human rights groups," said Bahey-eldin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, an independent research center. He accused the government of "an unprecedented forgery campaign to falsify the elections."
Ruling party officials explained their refusal to allow international monitors by saying that a government commission would grant permits to Egyptian monitors to do the job. In recent days, however, the two main coalitions of monitoring groups said that the commission, which is dominated by ruling party appointees, hadn't responded to requests for more than 2,200 permits.
Human Rights Watch criticized the commission for saying that monitors couldn't take photographs and that officials would regulate their access to polling places.
"Repression by the government makes free and fair elections extremely unlikely this weekend," said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
Mubarak has been a reliable American ally on counter-terrorism and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but there were signs earlier this year that the relationship was fraying. Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and John McCain, R-Ariz., drafted a resolution that called on Mubarak to repeal a three-decade-old emergency law that severely restricts political speech and allows security services broad powers to arrest people without charge and hold them indefinitely.
When Mubarak extended the law instead, however, there was little protest from the Obama administration, which may have decided it had more pressing concerns in the Middle East, experts said.
"In the light of the regional instability in Iraq, the conflicting Palestinian factions, the political turmoil in Lebanon and the ongoing terrorism cases, the U.S. and Israel both need internal stability in Egypt," said Nabil Abdelfattah, a researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a research center with ties to the Egyptian government.
"And the Egyptian government realizes that, and knows it can raise its voice in the face of any U.S. pressures requesting a fair electoral process."
Extending the emergency law has allowed authorities to crack down on the leading opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is effectively banned but won 88 of 454 parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections with candidates who ran as independents. Since the movement announced in October that it would contest these elections, 1,400 of its members have been arrested, officials say, including hundreds who remain in custody.
Hamdy Hassan, a parliamentarian from the movement, said that while it was able to stage marches with relative freedom in 2005, this year its posters had been torn down, its rallies blocked and candidates' spouses and relatives thrown into jail.
"I don't see an election, but an ongoing war with the security forces and a state that is using all its agencies and power to stop us from running," he said.
"I think it's going to be hard to win even one seat."
A senior ruling party official, Mohamed Kamal, rejected the accusations of manipulation and said the arrests were justified because "Muslim Brotherhood members violated the laws, and the security forces were restoring law and order."
"We expect the elections to be highly competitive," he added.
Journalists reporting on the campaign also have been targeted, according to media watchdogs and human rights groups. In October, one of the country's most outspoken reporters, Ibrahim Eissa, was fired as the editor in chief of the independent daily newspaper Al Dustour by the paper's new owners, one of whom belongs to an opposition party that has ties to the Mubarak government.
Weeks earlier, authorities abruptly shut down "Cairo Today," a popular talk show on a Saudi-owned satellite channel, after an episode that criticized state media as being soft on Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and heir apparent.
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent. Bengali reported from Baghdad.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Middle East developments at McClatchy's Middle East Diary