Egypt's parliamentary elections taking place on Sunday have been ushered in by one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago, with the government seemingly determined to shut out its top rival, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

The ruling party is expected to secure a majority despite mounting opposition.


Men wait at a minibus station in front of a statue showing President Hosni Mubarak near Cairo on Saturday. ((Amr Nabil/Associated Press) )

In the weeks leading up to the vote, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign events by Brotherhood candidates — even attacking the movement's top member in parliament in his car.

More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested during the election campaign.

At the same time, authorities have reined in the media, shutting several independent TV stations and forcing critics off the air on other channels.

The clampdown suggests this close U.S. ally in the Middle East wants to guarantee its powerful grip on authority ahead of more crucial presidential elections due next year.

It's a sign of nervousness at an uncertain time, when there are questions over the 82-year-old Mubarak's health and when the country has seen a year of low-level but persistent street protests — not over political reform but over issues that hit closer to Egyptians' daily lives, like high food prices, low wages and unemployment.

The last parliament election, in 2005, saw widespread violence that killed at least 10 people, in most cases when mobs rioted trying to get into polling stations closed by police to keep out opposition voters.

Even with the violence and reports of rigging of ballot boxes, the Brotherhood succeeded in winning a fifth of parliament's seats, its best showing ever.

The Brotherhood, which is banned and yet remains Egypt's most organized opposition force, is contesting 30 per cent of the races around the country in this election, running candidates as independents.

But the ruling party is expected to easily take back a much larger majority of parliament's 508 seats, given the crackdown.

The question will be whether violence will erupt again.

'"They [the Muslim Brotherhood] have campaigned against the law using religious slogans in their campaign, which is illegal." —Alexandria's ruling party candidate Nadia Abdou

In Egypt's second city Alexandria, the Brotherhood candidate Sobhi Salh warned the ruling party that their "days in power [were] numbered."

"You have smeared what remains of your reputation," he said.

Alexandria's ruling party candidate Nadia Abdou blamed the Brotherhood for the recent violence in the city.

"They have campaigned against the law using religious slogans in their campaign, which is illegal," she said.

Tens of thousands of banners and posters have been draped around Cairo, and ruling party candidates have thrown festive campaign rallies, organizing live music performances and often handing out food and other gifts to supporters.

Still, turnout in Egyptian elections is chronically low, around 25 per cent in the 2005 vote.

The sense that results are a foregone conclusion could only depress it further.

"I think we need to change, we really need to change," said student Ibrahim Badros.

But he added: "I think that this election will be rigged as the other elections."

Egypt's Emergency Law, in place since 1981, gives police wide powers of arrest, meaning they have a relatively free hand to crack down on activists.

Further lowering excitement over the vote is the disappearance from the political landscape of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate whose return to his native Egypt this year to challenge Mubarak's regime created a wave of support from reformists.

But the buzz has largely fizzled, something that many blame on ElBaradei's constant travels abroad.

He will not be in Egypt on voting day.

The ruling National Democratic Party has taken the campaign as an opportunity to depict itself as an advocate for the poor, apparently seeking to counter its reputation as a bastion for wealthy businessmen close to the de facto party leader.

That would be the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, believed to be set on a track to succeed his father.

Rejects U.S. proposal for observers

The government denies vote fraud in the past and insists Sunday's vote will be clean.

The government is clearly sensitive over the issue. It has barred international observers of the vote as an infringement of Egypt's sovereignty.

When the United States urged it to accept such observers, Egypt lashed back with a harshly worded denunciation saying Washington was acting like an "overseer."  

Unlike in previous elections, judges will not be monitoring polling stations, a provision that was seen as offering at least some hindrance on vote fraud.

In 2007, the government amended the constitution so that polls will now be supervised by a government-appointed body instead.

Domestic rights groups, in theory allowed to monitor voting, complain of delays in receiving accreditation and of other restrictions.