CAIRO, Egypt – As Egyptians head to the polls today to elect a new lower house of parliament for the first time since 2005, many are already questioning its legitimacy after incidents of intimidation and other abuses by the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

A total of 508 seats are up for grabs in today’s election, with more than 5,000 hopefuls competing from a variety of political parties.

But it is Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, a well-oiled political machine that has held power for three decades, that is expected to come out on top.

The election comes after weeks of government clampdowns on both independent media outlets and opposition politicians. Experts and human rights groups say that the severity and efficiency of the recent suppression is a bleak bellwether for a country facing increasing political uncertainty in the run-up to the 2011 presidential election.

“The crackdown this year is much worse than it has ever been in the past,” said Emad Gad, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a state-funded think tank. “Egypt’s democratic process, which is completely run by the ruling regime, is a controlled one. It is not open.”

Critics argue that the president’s strength is maintained through tightly controlled electoral guidelines and a draconian emergency law that gives security forces unbridled power.

With increasing public speculation over the health of the 82-year-old Mubarak, who has never named a vice president, many see control of parliament as one of the biggest keys to presidential succession.

Mubarak and his party have dominated Egypt’s political arena since he first took office in 1981. In 2007, a controversial amendment to Egypt’s constitution required that all applicants to the post of president first gain 250 endorsements from Egypt’s local and national legislative bodies – with the largest minimum requirement coming from the Peoples’ Assembly.

Gad said that, more than ever, Egypt’s government is “scared” that certain groups could make legislative gains, namely the banned but semi-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement, is barred from participation in politics by a constitutional ban preventing the formation of parties with religious platforms.

Still, the Islamic group won a surprising 20 percent of the seats during the last election in 2005, circumventing the restriction by running as independent candidates.

At the time, they ran under the popular “Islam is the solution” banner.

Two years later, a parliament controlled by the National Democratic Party answered by amending the constitution to make the use of religious slogans and other campaign activities illegal.

More recently, however, the government has relied on brute force to keep dissenting voices at bay.

Recent campaign events held by the Islamic group in cities throughout the country have been cut short by state security using tear-gas, beatings and detentions to disperse the crowds.

“[The ruling NDP has] to use police force to stop our candidates from winning elections,” said Ramadan Omar, a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary candidate in the Helwan district just south of Cairo.

Intimidation of candidates and voters, however, is nothing new for Egypt.

This June, in the days following the upper house election for parliament, widespread reports of official fraud and vote-rigging surfaced.

In the months leading up to this election, human rights groups and media professionals also criticized the heightened restrictions that have been placed on Egypt’s independent media, including new limits on mobile phone text messaging and satellite uplinks used by television broadcasters.

Although Egypt is one of the biggest recipients of American foreign aid – at just under $2 billion annually – the United States has remained largely silent on the opposition’s accusations of intimidation.

The Mubarak administration recently rebuffed a State Department request to allow foreign observers to polling stations, denouncing the United States for interfering in its internal affairs.

Instead, Egypt announced that certain civil society organizations would be allowed to monitor elections.

In a recent editorial published in the popular independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, columnist Adel Iskandar noted that at least one of these groups had already been denied the necessary permits to cover the elections.

“The monitoring procedures in this election are embarrassing, if not catastrophic,” wrote Iskandar last week. “Every good election performance needs an audience. Once again, the regime has decided that only few would watch the final cut and the rest should be content with just the trailer.”

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