CAIRO // As Egyptians prepared to vote in today's parliamentary elections, increasing reports of abuses and electoral irregularities further damaged the credibility of an election many critics have already dismissed as rigged.
While the official action against opposition parties and voter manipulation are hardly surprising to observers of Egyptian politics, the combined effort points to a decidedly overt attack on the Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist group that had enjoyed a certain degree of freedom during the last parliamentary elections in 2005.
But the shift in the regime's treatment of the Brotherhood says more about the sensitive political position of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) than it does about the Brotherhood's campaign tactics.
The ruling party faces presidential elections next year. That vote may see Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's 82-year-old president who has ruled for the past 28 years, elected to his final term or the introduction of a new NDP presidential candidate.
Either way, the ruling regime will need to guide Egypt through a difficult transition without losing one of the country's most abiding assets: stability.
"Egypt is now passing through a stage of uncertainty and instability" because for 58 years it has been governed by one man "who plays a major role in the whole system," said Bahey Al Din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, at a press conference yesterday.
"The failure of the ruling elite to agree on the next successor to President Mubarak is one of the major pitfalls that we have now."
The party's precarious leadership position has widened gnawing internecine divisions within the NDP, said Mr Hassan. The most obvious outward manifestation of this lack of internal agreement is the NDP's unprecedented decision to nominate more than one parliamentary candidate in more than a third of voting districts.
Because the parliament vets candidates for the presidential election, the NDP has been particularly keen on diminishing the Brotherhood's legislative strength.
"In the past couple of months, we've seen one of the most unprecedented campaigns of intimidation and regime restrictions in recent memory," said Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Doha Center of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. Mr Hamid also cited a rash of recent restrictions on independent media and communications technology. "We know what the intent of the regime is. They want to reduce the Brotherhood's representation from 88 to something considerably lower, perhaps to 20 or 30 seats."
During the 2005 parliamentary elections, as now, the Brotherhood was illegal under an Egyptian law that demands the separation of religion and politics. But the 2005 race saw Brotherhood members, who ran as independents, win one-fifth of the seats in Egypt's parliament.
Also at the time of the previous vote, not one Brotherhood member was in prison.
Compare that to today, when the Brotherhood has reported that more than 1,000 of its members have been arrested in the past several months. Security officials have already declared that nearly a quarter of the organisation's parliamentary candidates are not qualified to run in the election.
On Friday, a criminal court in Alexandria sentenced 11 Brotherhood members to two years in jail for using religious slogans during campaigning. Five years ago, the Brotherhood's main slogan, "Islam is the solution", could be seen on campaign posters throughout the country.
Also on Friday, administrative courts cancelled parliamentary polls in 24 voting districts in the country's northern Nile Delta. The judges prohibited the voting after Egypt's nominally independent High Elections Commission ignored lower court decisions to reinstate Brotherhood and opposition parliamentary candidates whom security services had excluded from the nomination process.
In the Brotherhood's place, the NDP hopes to promote one of the more complacent, legal opposition parties, Mr Hamid said.
While political analysts say the NDP's machinations are an obvious attempt at silencing the Brotherhood politically, NDP officials say the Brotherhood's campaigns this year amount to a provocation that cannot be ignored.
"In this election, much more than in 2005, [the Muslim Brotherhood] are saying explicitly that they belong to this illegal organisation and they brag about it," said Mohammed Kamal, a political science professor at Cairo University and a member of the NDP's powerful Policies Secretariat, at a press conference yesterday. "It is not about elections, it is not about religious slogans. It is about an entity that is illegal, that is talking and walking like a political party but it is not a political party, it is illegal. It's about time to take action."