Egypt's election magic turns the opposition almost invisible

Mubarak's campaign workers hand out meat and beatings, reports Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online

Sobhi Salah Moussa looked pretty crushed as he stood in the hospital courtyard in this scruffy little town, as well he might. Despite the town being top-heavy with plainclothes cops and squads of riot police – the normal theatrical backcloth for all Egyptian elections – poor old Sobhi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a lawyer and still (up until yesterday's elections, at least) a sitting member of parliament, had just been duffed up by President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party thugs.

In fact, the NDP's lads had helped to padlock the hospital gates to prevent the white-haired and much-bruised Sobhi Moussa from leaving. The ambulance drivers complained to us that first of all the NDP boys wouldn't allow him in – but had then imprisoned him inside the compound and wouldn't allow an ambulance in to take him away.

There was a time, in the last elections five years ago, when the Brotherhood, the Ikhwan, would talk about their election campaign and their need to follow Islam in all their actions, and about the corruption of the Mubarak administration. Not any more. Now they whinge about the unfairness of an election in which they chose to take part, complain about police brutality and government harassment – all true, of course – and then creep off in silence. They like to be very careful these days.

Sobhi Moussa didn't want any trouble. No more violence, you understand. Friends picked him up in an old family car and he sneaked out the back gate of the hospital. And back in Alexandria, 20 minutes from this dreary town with its cheap carpets and riot police and veiled ladies, it was the same story. There wasn't a Brotherhood election poster in the streets, although the NDP had plastered every wall with their own candidates.

In Cairo, the ruling party had been handing out meat at election meetings – better than outright bribes, I suppose – and I couldn't help noticing that one of the local Alexandria NDP candidates was engineer Tareq Talaat Mustafa, brother of the well-known Cairo businessman sentenced to death – and then mysteriously un-sentenced – for sending an ex-policeman to murder the Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim in Dubai not so long ago.

In the Brotherhood headquarters, they were all praying when we arrived – as well they might since their gains in the 2005 election might now be reduced to zero – and complaining. Sixty-three members of the Brotherhood – illegal but tolerated, as the Egyptian government likes to say – were thrown into jail in Alexandria yesterday.

In all, 250 members had been arrested in Alexandria in three weeks, 1,500 in all Egypt, according to the party leader in the city, Hussain Mohamed Ibrahim. His party had four candidates banned by the authorities – despite a court order to the contrary – and he was handing out video-grabs of plain-clothes men beating up party supporters and an already fully-stuffed ballot box being taken into a local polling station by the back door. All quite legitimate, of course. And in theory, democracy is at work. Almost 40 million Egyptians could have voted yesterday – even deserts do not produce such mirages – and 10,000 polling stations which are – yet again, of course – unmonitored by local or foreign observers and from which all party candidates are forbidden entrance.

The Brotherhood had 130 candidates, the NDP 839. Government "sources" (meaning Mr Mubarak's lackeys) talk of the total collapse of the Brotherhood. They may be right.

It's the same old Egyptian magic. In one Alexandria district, Mr Ibrahim's men counted 10,570 voters, of whom about 7,500 supposedly said they had voted for the Brotherhood, while in another they said that 5,000 out of 6,000 men and women voted for them. That may well be the case, but that's not what today's official results are going to say.

There was much thumping of fists on desks at the Brotherhood's office. They would not only complain to the Supreme Court about fake election results, Mr Ibrahim announced to us, they would go to the international court. To The Hague, no less. And that will have the NDP and its wondrous president of Egypt shaking in their well-polished boots.

And so tell me, I asked Mr Ibrahim, if 82 year-old Hosni Mubarak was still president at the age of 182 years, would the Brotherhood still fight these preposterous elections? "It's too soon to say," he murmured. See what I mean about being very careful?