Egypt ruling party hints at Brotherhood squeeze

A senior member of Egypt's ruling party said on Wednesday the Muslim Brotherhood had failed to provide an effective parliamentary opposition, in the latest hint that the Islamists may be sidelined in November elections.

In an interview with Reuters, Ali El Din Hillal, head of media for the National Democratic Party (NDP), dismissed media speculation that the party was tightening its grip in preparation for a successor to President Hosni Mubarak.

The outcome of the parliament vote is being watched to see how much space the authorities give opposition groups. The vote precedes a crucial 2011 presidential election, which has fueled speculation about a possible father-son succession.

Mubarak, 82 who had surgery in Germany in March, has not said whether he will run for a sixth six-year term. Many believe his son Gamal, 46, is being groomed to step in. Both father and son have denied any plans for a succession.

"This media circus is designed to impose an agenda on the party but the NDP will not budge. Our focus now is parliamentary elections," Hillal said.

The Brotherhood, which skirts a ban on religious groups by running candidates in parliament as independents, now controls a fifth of the seats — by the far the biggest opposition bloc — but has said state suppression is likely to cut its presence.

"There are different views about the performance of Brotherhood MPs over the last five years, that they did not meet the required level of effective groups and had not served their districts well," Hillal told Reuters. "In the end, it is about what voters want and whether their representative can deliver."

It follows comments to local media by NDP secretary-general Safwat el-Sherif, who said he did not expect the Brotherhood to repeat their 2005 success in the forthcoming vote.

The government insists elections are free and fair. But the Brotherhood, other opposition groups and independent observers repeatedly complain that votes are rigged against them.

 Potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, urged the opposition this week to boycott the parliament vote, saying it would be rigged. But analysts say opposition groups are too divided to reach a consensus.

The Brotherhood's 2005 success, winning 88 of the 454 seats, surprised many observers as it was the first time the Islamist group had made such inroads at the ballot box, although rights groups and others said voting abuses were still rife.

Some expect the nationalist liberal Wafd party, a decades old political group which has a handful of seats, to benefit from a squeeze on the Brotherhood. But analysts say it does not have the grassroots appeal that the Brotherhood enjoys.

Talk that Gamal, a senior NDP official, could be in line has surged since a poster campaign backing him was launched in mostly poor neighborhoods — the party denied any role — and after he accompanied his father on a trip to Washington.

Hilal dismissed such talk, saying: "It is political naivete to begin talking in detail about an event that is 13 or 14 months away."

Hillal has previously said Gamal was one among several candidates who could contest the 2011 elections.

Sherif and other party officials have said the party still backs the elder Mubarak as a presidential candidate.

Hillal said that, should Mubarak choose to step down, the NDP would choose "a statesman or a figure known to the public with a record of handling public issues."

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