Middle East

Egyptian parties divided ahead of parliamentary poll

A campaign poster showing President Hosni Mubarak (top right) and his son Gamal (left)
Image caption The campaign has fuelled speculation about a power battle

Egypt's National Democratic Party (NDP) is almost certain to retain its decades-long grip on power in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

But behind the scenes, there are divisions amongst both government and opposition that could be important for Egypt's future.

For the first time, the NDP will be running multiple candidates in a number of constituencies. It is a sign of increasingly bitter divisions within the party - although in previous elections such splits were papered over by allowing some party candidates to run as independents.

Twice the party has also postponed its planned conference. On the last occasion, officials gave the unlikely explanation that the party meeting would get in the way of election campaigning, even though the date of the election had long been known.

A more likely explanation suggests they feared the party divide would be too openly on display.

Family battle?

Opinion is divided over the roots of the split. Some commentators see it merely as an argument over sharing out the bountiful powers of patronage that come with being a member of the Egyptian parliament.

Others see this as a more fundamental battle between an "old guard," led by those loyal to President Hosni Mubarak, and a "young guard" led by the president's son, Gamal Mubarak.

Image caption An unprecedented number of female candidates is running in the elections

It certainly seems to indicate a current weakness of leadership within the ruling party.

The parliamentary elections take place in the shadow of next year's presidential contest. Just before the parliamentary campaign began, a senior party official made the most definitive declaration to date that Hosni Mubarak would stand again next year, even though he will be aged 83 by the time of the election. Shortly afterwards, Gamal Mubarak gave two rare media interviews, declaring he had no personal political ambitions.

It is clear that, at the very least, those in power do not want the presidential issue to be a topic during the parliamentary election, and they seem to have succeeded in sidelining the issue.

Nevertheless, many people in Egypt believe there is a power battle going on within the presidential family, between those who want Gamal to succeed his father - either in next year's election, or after he dies or is debilitated - and those, suspected to include Hosni Mubarak himself, who do not believe Gamal is made of the right stuff.

Boycott call

There are equally deep divisions within the opposition. The former UN nuclear chief and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei called for a boycott of the parliamentary poll. But many opposition parties are taking part.

Image caption There have been clashes between the security forces and the opposition

It will be hard to tell whether many Egyptians heed the call for a boycott, as turnout in parliamentary votes is often as low as 5%. The divisions over the issue have helped further to weaken Mr ElBaradei's political credibility.

Many people also believe that the government is quietly encouraging one of the opposition parties that is taking part, al-Wafd, in the hope that it will take over from the Muslim Brotherhood as the second largest force in parliament. Deals, it is whispered, may have been done.

Meanwhile, human rights campaigners continue to point out the many flaws in the way Egypt conducts elections. There has been big pressure on the media in the run-up to the election, including attempts to restrict foreign news channels' access to television studios and satellite trucks.

Election monitors have struggled to receive accreditation or information about polling stations. The government has refused access to international monitors, and the role of Egyptian judges in monitoring the vote has been heavily downgraded since the last parliamentary poll in 2005.

Out on the campaign trail, there have been a number of clashes, mostly between the security forces and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Officially the party is banned from taking part, but it fields a number of candidates as independents.

So despite increasingly tough economic conditions, including a steep rise in food rises, nothing is likely to shake the control of parliament exercised for the last three decades by the NDP.

But splits that have emerged during this election suggest problems in the future - as the succession to President Mubarak increasingly becomes a question that cannot be avoided.

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