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Egypt's Opposition United for Parliamentary Poll

Egyptians begin voting for a new parliament Wednesday. The legislative election is seen as a crucial test of Egypt's democratic reforms. Most of the main opposition parties have united into a single coalition, and they are hoping for a dramatic increase in the number of opposition seats in the People's Assembly.

Egypt's opposition parties have gotten together, and are hoping that a little unity will pay off, when voters start going to the polls Wednesday.

In September's presidential election, the opposition was fragmented. Sitting President Hosni Mubarak faced nine opponents, and his most successful challenger garnered an anemic seven percent of the votes.

But in the parliamentary race, most of the main opposition parties have formed what they are calling the United Front for Change. It includes at least eight or nine groups, including the venerable Wafd party, which led Egypt's struggle for independence. The coalition also includes the pro-democracy protest movement, known as Kifaya, which boycotted the presidential election.

Together, they hope to loosen the grip that Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party holds on parliament, where it currently has roughly 80 percent of the seats.

Kifaya leader George Ishak says unity is the only way do that. "Nobody can, by himself, do any change. Because, you know, the regime is very strong," he said.

The man leading the United Front for Change is one of Egypt's elder statesmen, 85-year-old former Prime Minister Aziz Sidky. "You know, I am very old. I am too old to participate in politics. People ask me, why are you coming back now? I say, 'because I am worried about Egypt.' As simple as that. And all the others in the opposition are feeling the same way," said Mr. Sidky.

Mr. Sidky has been a vocal critic of Egypt's controversial emergency laws, which have restricted political activity for the past 24 years. He insists that his drive to unite the Egyptian opposition is motivated, not by personal animosity toward the president or his party, but out of concern for the country.

"Look, Mubarak is a friend of mine. He awarded me the highest decoration in Egypt in '82. There is nothing personal," said Mr. Sidky. "But, because of this, I feel that I have the right to advise him, if there is something wrong. And there is a lot that is wrong now."

The United Front for Change's name will not appear on the ballots. Forming a coalition does not mean that the different parties necessarily agree on policy matters. It is simply an electoral strategy to get a larger opposition bloc into the People's Assembly.

Coalition members agreed to back a single candidate in each parliamentary district. The goal is to avoid splitting the anti-Mubarak vote.

Kifaya leader George Ishak says he is trying to keep the group's aspirations in check. He has no illusions of winning a majority of the 444 seats. "I think we will obtain, in this election, we will obtain about 100 seats in the parliament," said Mr. Ishak. "If we obtain this 100, it will be a step, not all we need, but a step on the way."

Some Egyptians are skeptical about whether new faces in parliament can really make a difference in their daily lives. The legislature is seen by many as a rubber-stamp for the president's policies. Former Prime Minister Sidky thinks that can change.

"Egypt deserves much better than what exists now. If it is properly run, Egypt can be one of the best growing economies in the growing world ... The result of the present policies [is] we have multi-millionaires, and we have children who are jumping into the garbage bins to eat from the garbage. I say, this is wrong, and it must be changed," he concluded.

Opposition leaders are placing far more importance on this election than they did on the presidential poll, where they generally saw the outcome as a foregone conclusion.

The popular Kifaya group boycotted the presidential election, saying it would be unfair. Local civic groups were not allowed to monitor the voting or counting, and there were credible reports of serious irregularities, including vote-buying and outright fraud. Mr. Mubarak won with more than 88 percent of the votes.

But local groups will be allowed to monitor the parliamentary poll, and there have been several other changes designed to make the election more credible, including the use of clear glass ballot boxes.

Mr. Sidky says it is crucial that the election is seen as fair. "The result of these elections will decide if this change, peacefully, will happen," he said. "I hope this will be the case. Because if it does not happen because of wrongdoing with the election, or whatever, this will be very dangerous.

"Because that will not change the fact that people are against what is existing," continued Mr. Sidky. "If you manipulate the elections, so that everything is business as usual, you are dreaming. It will not be so. Change will happen. We can either do it peacefully, and that is what I hope will happen. If not, I am very scared about the future of Egypt."

Two significant opposition groups are not part of the coalition. The Tomorrow Party, led by Ayman Nour, was not invited because of particularly bad blood between Mr. Nour and some of the other coalition members. He placed second in the presidential election, but his party has been torn apart by infighting since then. Mr. Nour is facing criminal charges of fraud, which he says are part of the ruling party's campaign to destroy him.

The Muslim Brotherhood is also not really part of the United Front. The Brotherhood is widely believed to be the single most popular political group in the country. It has been officially banned for decades, but it is tolerated by the government. The Muslim Brotherhood has won indirect representation in parliament through backing independent candidates. It was originally reported to be part of the United Front for Change, but that appears to have changed.

Egyptians will vote for members of parliament in three stages, depending on where they live. Wednesday's voting will include Cairo and Giza. Other regions will vote on November 20 and December 1.