On a night last week, Mohammed El Beltagi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was campaigning for a second term in parliament. A disciplined crowd of men carried posters and chanted: ï¿½Change and reform!ï¿½
Beltagi was elected in 2005, as an independent, since the Muslim Brotherhood is officially not a legal party. He represents Shubra El Kheima, a sprawling informal settlement in Northern Cairo. Like many of the capital's new ad-hoc neighbourhoods, parts of Shubra El Kheima don't officially exist. So they don't have public services: no paved roads, no sewage system and no schools. This absence of services is the focus of Beltagi's campaign.
The candidate and his supporters stood at the end of a narrow dirt road. Donkey-carts, motorcycles and three-wheel trucks squeezed by; residents leaned out their windows.
ï¿½As God is our witness,ï¿½ said Beltagi, ï¿½we have tried hard for the last five years to get services for this neighborhood. But you know what government officials always tell us: where will we get the money? That's why we fight corruption throughout the country.ï¿½It's government corruption,ï¿½ Beltagi told his audience, ï¿½that keeps you from getting your rights and living in dignity.ï¿½
In 2005, Beltagi won handily in this neighborhood. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood became the largest opposition block in parliament, with 88 seats. This time around, however, things aren't expected to go as well.
Amr El Shubki is a well-known political analyst.ï¿½I think the Muslim Brotherhood,ï¿½ he says, ï¿½lost during this last five years a lot of their credibility and their image. And also the government will insist to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood.ï¿½
In fact, the government here has already shown its hand and has indicated it will try to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from winning more than a handful of seats. Human rights advocate Bahey Eldin Hassan, says because it controls every aspect of the electoral process, there's no independent body running the election. He says it's run by the interior ministry and because of that, they are able to do whatever they please.
Since Egypt's security apparatus is cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the fiercest ï¿½ or in many districts the only ï¿½ real competition is expected to take place between candidates from the president's National Democratic Party. Most of them are well-off businessmen and members of prominent families. But critics say the both the crackdown and the competition stem from the same source. The regime is increasingly insecure as everyone wonders who might replace the aging President Hosni Mubarak, in power now for three decades.
El Shubki says many observers expect these elections to be both fraudulent and violent and he thinks this will be the worst parliamentary election in the country's history.
The government is also making it hard for journalists to cover the elections. After attending Beltagi's rally, The World's reporter Ursula Lindsey was detained and questioned at length by plain-clothes police.
According to local and international observers, elections here are regularly marred by vote-buying, fraud, and violence and intimidation at polling stations. Egypt's last parliamentary elections took place in 2005 when the Bush administration was applying pressure on Arab regimes to democratize. That pressure compelled the Mubarak regime to open the political space a little, and that in turn energized opposition groups.
Hassan says this time, things are different. ï¿½In 2005 there was a lot of interest in the question of political reform in Egypt and the Arab region as a reaction to the attacks of 11 September. In 2010 that is not the case. There is no serious interest; there is just a statement here and there. ï¿½
The US government has called for international election monitors but the Egyptian authorities have rebuffed the idea. Hassan says that in any case the call for monitors was too little, too late, ï¿½for me it doesn't reflect that there is a political will, a real interest, in the question of political reform or even in having free and fair elections in Egypt.ï¿½
The opposition leader and would-be presidential candidate Mohamed El Beltagi has called for a boycott of the elections. But the Muslim Brotherhood and most of Egypt's small legal parties have decided they have more to lose than gain by staying out of the political process. Most Egyptians, meanwhile, already don't bother voting partly because of the chaos and danger at polling stations and partly because they don't see the point, they stay at home.
Official voter turnout in the last elections was 23% and in some districts it was as low as 5 percent. That is the paradox of elections in Egypt. A few groups, the government, foreign diplomats, opposition figures, the Muslim Brotherhood and the candidates themselves, care very much about them. For everyone else here, they are a foregone conclusion.