Egypt's vote won't calm turbulent streets

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

In the coastal city of Port Said, a general strike entered its second week on Sunday. The city has practically come to a halt as thousands of workers from the main industrial area joined the strike.

Calls for a civil strike in line with the one in Port Said have spread around Egypt. A group of protesters blocked the entrance to a major administrative building in Cairo's Tahrir Square, stopping citizens from entering and prompting small scuffles.

But Port Said is emerging as a prime example of how the popular discontent is evolving into sustained anti-government action. There are even calls in Port Said for secession which, while not realistic, indicate the depth of anger.

Activists there are demanding retribution for more than 40 residents killed there last month, allegedly by police.

The killings took place amid a wave of anger that swept the city after a Cairo court passed death sentences against 21 people, mostly from Port Said, for their part in Egypt's worst soccer disaster on Feb. 1 2012.

Morsi's supporters say that delaying elections, protesting and boycotting are affecting Egypt's ability to lure foreign investors and tourists again as the economy deteriorates.

Lack of confidence in law enforcement has reached a point where villagers sometimes hunt down alleged killers, lynch them and burn their bodies with police unable or unwilling to intervene.

With violent crime on the rise, rights groups accuse police under Morsi of falling back to the brutal methods and impunity of the Mubarak days.

The opposition, which led the uprising against Mubarak, is showing signs of disarray.

Another emphatic Islamist victory, especially if enough opposition groups do not heed ElBardei's boycott call, is likely to deal a body blow to the National Salvation Front — the main opposition coalition.

In short, there is no end in sight to the growing popular discontent with Morsi's rule and the Brotherhood, who are accused by opponents of monopolizing power.

Already, ElBaradei's call for a boycott has sown divisions with his movement, with some of its leading figures saying the former director of the U.N. nuclear agency spoke prematurely and without sufficient consultation with other leaders. Others said they would heed the boycott call.

Ahmed Maher, the leader of the opposition April 6 youth group, said if the entire opposition does not join the boycott, it would be a "gift" to the Brotherhood and would accord legitimacy to a Brotherhood-dominated parliament. A successful boycott, he added in a statement, must be accompanied with a "parallel" parliament and a shadow government for it to be effective.

Significantly, some activists say that with international monitoring of the upcoming elections to prevent widespread fraud, the Brotherhood and their Salafi allies may not get the comfortable win they are hoping for.

"Entire cities and provinces have turned against the Brotherhood," said activist Ahmed Badawi. "This is a good time to defeat the Brotherhood because the economic crisis is hurting people's lives and they are angry."

But Gad, the former lawmaker, pointed out that staggering the elections over a two-month period would only benefit the Brotherhood, which had gained valuable election expertise when it had for years under Mubarak fielded candidates in parliamentary elections as independents.

"They have their election pros who will now be put to work in all four stages to ensure their supporters go out and vote while orchestrating soft fraud which, if widespread, can alter the results," said Gad.

The Brotherhood has been repeatedly accused of influencing voters at polling centers, campaigning on voting day in violation of the law and taking advantage of the relatively high percentage of illiteracy among voters. Some also accuse the Brotherhood of buying votes, exploiting the country's widespread poverty.

The Brotherhood denies the charges and counters them by boasting of its superior organizational skills. The group said it has the legitimacy of its consistent victories at the ballot box and accuses its opponent of trying to overthrow a democratically elected government.

Associated Press reporter Mamdouh Thabet contributed to this report from Assiut, Egypt.

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