FEATURE-Elections mask where real power lies in Egypt
* Elections produce no rotation of power
* Web activists, workers most vocal government critics
* Muslim Brotherhood shuns open challenge to government
By Edmund Blair
CAIRO, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Islamist rivals of Egypt's ruling party have scuffled in the streets before Sunday's parliamentary election, but they have no illusions about the poll's outcome.
President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) has held power for decades. The vote will not loosen its grip.
Egypt will also hold its second multi-candidate poll for the presidency next year, but even if Mubarak opts not to run, don't expect a democratic contest in the most populous Arab nation.
The opposition is weak, fractured and harried by the state, whose vast security forces are swift to crush any challenge in the street. Disgruntled workers, seeking a rise in paltry wages, and Web activists are the government's most vocal critics.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most formidable opposition group with a fifth of seats in the outgoing parliament, is officially banned and runs its candidates as independents. It is fielding fewer this time round and expects to lose many of its 88 seats. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ TAKE A LOOK-Egypt and its parliamentary election[ID:nLDE6AL0JG] ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
"A war of marches and words flares up between the Brotherhood and the National party," al-Masry al-Youm daily wrote this week after Brotherhood supporters scuffled with police. Dozens have been detained in the run-up to the election.
No one expects street skirmishes to change the result.
Egypt's political landscape has barely shifted since Mubarak took power in 1981 after Islamist militants shot dead his predecessor Anwar Sadat. That stasis brings its own uncertainty.
Mubarak is now 82. His gallbladder surgery in March revived scrutiny of his health and debate about who may rule Egypt next, in the absence of any designated successor or a vice-president.
Exactly how the transition will work is murky. The military, which has spawned all Egypt's presidents to date, will have a key voice, but is only one of several competing power centres.
Others include the security apparatus, the ruling party, Mubarak's inner circle of advisers, the technocrats working to liberalise the economy and a well-connected business elite.
Officials insist all votes are free and fair. But any poll for a future leader may only serve to anoint whatever successor the establishment chooses, by whatever opaque mechanism.
"One thing that makes people nervous, whether investors in Egypt or Egyptians in their own country, is the lack of visibility," political analyst Issandr El Amrani said.
Mubarak has not announced whether he will run again, but officials suggest that he will, health permitting. If not, most Egyptians think he is grooming his son Gamal, 46, a politician and former investment banker, to take over.
"We certainly try to work with him as we see him as a possibility," one Western diplomat said of Gamal, adding that he had yet to show a common touch to win over Egypt's 79 million people, many of whom struggle to feed themselves.
Gamal's lack of a military background also poses the question of whether power at the top can shift to a civilian.
"If Gamal doesn't have military support and support from the people, he could have trouble," the diplomat said.
Within the ruling party, veteran politicians who prospered under Mubarak are also wary of the rise of a younger cohort of party members and business executives allied to Gamal. He is close to ministers driving economic liberalisation since 2004.
"You have some people of the 1960s mentality ... Some people don't like to see these (economic) policies succeed because it will give more power (to the new generation)," a party insider acknowledged. He said the NDP was undergoing a power struggle.
Foreign investors, allured by Egypt's 5.1 percent growth, have mostly ignored the political worries. "We think the Egyptian regime will muddle through its political challenges," Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a note this month.
But the Egyptian pound's EGP= slide to a five-year low against the dollar in November has hinted at some jitters.
"If you told me the same (economic) team would be doing the same thing for the next three to four years, but just with a different leader and may be with some nuances at the edges, I would be perfectly comfortable. But the problem is the unknown," said Oliver Bell of Pictet Asset Management in London.
The glitter of six years of faster economic growth, however, leaves many Egyptians wondering how they are better off.
Take the impoverished residents of the scruffy Ramlat Bulaq neighbourhood who live in the shadow of Cairo's soaring Nile Towers complex with its five-star hotel and swanky mall.
"There are rich and poor in this country. There's no one in the middle," complained Umm Dina, a 34-year-old mother of three.
She supplements her husband's salary of 700 pounds ($123) by finding parking spaces in the potholed roads for office workers loath to pay the Nile Towers' underground parking fees. The extra money helps the family eat. Food inflation is 22 percent.
"Trickle-down has worked for some sectors, not for all sectors ... The issue of social justice and alleviating poverty has a priority in the party and government policy," said Mohamed Kamal, a member of the ruling party's top policy secretariat.
Egyptian leaders have sung a similar refrain for decades, yet their opponents have failed to unify into a movement able and willing to mobilise the pent-up popular discontent.
The Muslim Brotherhood, painted by the government as the thin end of a dangerous Islamist wedge, takes pains to avoid a confrontation that might imperil its long-term strategy to woo grassroots support by offering medical and social services.
Under existing rules, it is almost impossible to make a realistic run for president without the ruling party's backing.
A campaign by Mohamed ElBaradei for reforms so that he could seek the presidency in 2011 has got nowhere so far, although the former chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog remains undaunted.
"After 58 years of repression, it will take time for people to shed their fear and mobilise for change," ElBaradei told Reuters by email. "So it is natural that change might take some time, but it is irreversible."
Anti-government demonstrations have rarely drawn more than a few hundred people -- coralled by heavy security. Critics say ElBaradei, who spent decades abroad before returning home, has not created a local network to build momentum for change.
"He has done nothing in terms of organising on the ground. He did not show up for protests as much as people would have wanted," said Hossam Hamalawy, an activist and blogger.
Exploiting the relative freedom available online, Hamalawy has used his site, arabawy.org, to highlight a surge of strikes and protests demanding a rise in the minimum wage, rooted at 35 pounds since 1984. A government body has recommended increasing it to 400 pounds, just above a poverty marker of $2 a day.
Economic grievances may eventually lever the political system open, said novelist and government critic Alaa al-Aswany.
"I'm not worried that many of the protests are for raising salaries of the workers. This is the core of democratic change. When you talk about justice, you are asking for democracy."
Aswany is setting up his own site, saying his newspaper had stopped publishing his critical columns under official pressure.
Other Internet activists have paid a far heavier price.
Khaled Said posted a video on his site purportedly showing police sharing the spoils of a drugs bust. Rights groups said police dragged him out of an Internet cafe and beat him to death. Two officers are on trial charged with mistreating him. (Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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