The November 29 election is taking place in the shadow of the continuing crisis in the Persian Gulf, and in the context of major economic, social and political problems in Egypt. Even prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Egyptian economy was suffering from unemployment and inflation, exacerbated by a staggering foreign debt, estimated at $50 billion, and continued pressure from international lenders for additional austerity measures. Price increases in basic commodities earlier this year produced widespread public discontent.
On November 29, Egyptian voters will go to the polls to elect 444 representatives to the People's Assembly, Egypt's national legislative chamber, which passes laws and nominates the President of the Republic every six years. The election is being boycotted by three legal opposition parties -- the New Wafd, the Socialist Labor Party and the Liberal Party -- and the technically banned Moslem Brotherhood, by most accounts the largest opposition force in the country. Together, these four groups captured 27.9 percent of the vote in the previous People's Assembly election, held in April 1987. In addition to persistent allegations of electoral fraud, a variety of systematic practices taint the conditions for holding elections. Egypt has been under a continuous state of emergency since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, affording the authorities the right to administratively detain any individual without charge or trial; the abuse of this broad detention power has resulted in many thousands of arbitrary arrests. Despite constitutional guarantees for a multi-party system, there are clear limits on freedom of political association; the Moslem Brotherhood, the Communists and the Nasirites continue to be denied legal status as political parties. The opposition has limited access to the state-owned newspapers, radio and television, which do not allow the full expression of diverse political views. Finally, allegations in previous election campaigns of harassment and intimidation, including so-called preventive arrests, raise cause for serious concern.