ALEXANDRIA, Egypt Egyptians wondering whether to vote in Sunday's parliamentary election must factor in the risk of brawls involving thugs hired by rival candidates.
Renting such gangs of bully boys is so embedded in Egypt's electoral landscape that one local daily has listed the prices the muscle-men, and their female counterparts, can command.
"Vote? No, I'll go to work instead," electricity worker Adel Mohammed, 32, said in the port city of Alexandria when asked if he would vote. "Elections don't matter in Egypt. Candidates disappear once they win seats and the violence is not worth it."
Hafez Abou Saeda, of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, said four people had already been killed and 30 wounded in pre-election unrest between political factions.
"This happens between different groups, not only the government. Muslim Brotherhood candidates and other candidates from the ruling party and other parties attack each other," he said. "The violence will be strong in this election."
During the 2005 poll, 14 people were killed, and independent monitors and witnesses reported widespread intimidation of Islamist and other opposition voters by the security forces.
No one doubts that President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will triumph again. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates compete as independents, is widely expected to lose ground after its impressive showing in the 2005 vote, when it won a fifth of the seats in parliament.
However predictable, the election is under scrutiny for how freely and fairly it is conducted, and for any clues it might throw up to the riddle of whether Mubarak, in power since 1981, will seek a sixth term in a presidential vote next year.
As a banned group, the Brotherhood cannot run a candidate against him, but the authorities seem eager to clip its wings anyway, rounding up hundreds of its members ahead of the poll.
LIMITS TO TOLERANCE
Police and armed men in plainclothes have hindered Brotherhood members trying to register as candidates and have dispersed Islamist election rallies, demonstrating the limits to official tolerance of Egypt's most potent opposition group.
The Brotherhood said security forces had fired tear gas and rubber bullets at Islamist supporters in Alexandria on Friday. It says the authorities let NDP candidates hold marches and put up posters in all districts but stifle their campaign efforts.
For its part, the NDP has asked the public prosecutor to investigate Brotherhood-backed candidates, saying their activities were "a blatant challenge to the constitution and the law, and a breach of the rules of the electoral process".
The government says the election is free and fair, blaming any violence on rivalry between candidates, especially those with clan affiliations. Officials have said the pre-election arrests targeted campaigners who held marches without permits.
One NDP candidate in Alexandria acknowledged that hiring thugs was standard procedure across the electoral spectrum.
"It's a common practice for candidates from the Brotherhood or other parties, and this includes rich businessmen who use thuggery during elections," Amer Abou Haiba told Reuters.
The Interior Ministry has announced that security forces will deal firmly with groups who "trigger confrontational situations" or "hold protests which could lead to riots".
A government official said intense competition for seats in parliament had induced many candidates to spend fortunes on campaigning and some had resorted to strong-arm tactics.
"It is the candidates, not only the Brotherhood, even the normal candidates, especially in Upper (southern) Egypt," said cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady, referring to the violence.
Rates for hiring a thug start at 800 Egyptian pounds ($140) and can reach 40,000 pounds depending on the assignment, according to a study printed by the independent Wafd newspaper.
The study, by criminologist Refaat Abdel Hamid, said thugs hired to attack large groups or candidates cost 25,000 pounds a day. Those hired to resist the authorities cost 6,000.
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