Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 16:39 UK

Voter turnout low in tense Egypt

Polling station in Matarya district of Cairo on Tuesday
Many polling stations, such as this one in Cairo, were deserted

Reports say voting is sluggish in local elections in Egypt which the government is sure to win.

Thousands of council seats are up for grabs in theory, but official media said 70% had already been won by the ruling party as they were unopposed.

The polls are being boycotted by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood after thousands of their proposed candidates were barred from standing.

Tensions are high after a youth, 15, died in clashes with security forces.

More than 100 civilians and security forces have been injured, some seriously, in clashes on Sunday and Monday, centring on the northern industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra.

Soaring food prices and low wages have strengthened popular discontent with the government, and there have been dozens of arrests.

Outcome assured

"The bread is getting more expensive, the people are worried about that and most don't care about politics," Medhat Abdel Nasser, a 20-year-old student, told the news agency Associated Press.

He walked by a polling station in Manial, a working-class district of the capital Cairo, without pausing, the agency said.

[We] appeal to the people not to vote
Hussein Ibrahim
Deputy head of Brotherhood bloc in parliament

The state newspaper al-Gomhuria and the official Mena news agency announced early on that the ruling National Democratic Party had already taken 70 percent of the 52,000 seats because they were uncontested.

A wide-ranging crackdown by authorities ahead of the vote left many candidates behind bars or unable to register in Egypt, a staunch ally of the US.

Only 21 candidates affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood are being allowed to stand out of thousands.

Local news reports also said significant numbers of candidates from the liberal Wafd party and left-leaning Tagammu party were also rejected.

Protester in industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra in Egypt
Rising food prices have sparked a wave of discontent

The Brotherhood called for a boycott of the vote - but the BBC's Heba Saleh in Cairo says it will be hard to gauge if the call is being heeded as turnout is usually very low anyway.

In previous times, municipal elections were rarely marked by controversy, but this year's poll is the first since a constitutional amendment in 2005 which required presidential candidates to secure the backing of local councillors.

In Washington, the state department would not condemn the crackdown when repeatedly asked to comment on it by reporters.

Spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration was supporting political and economic reform in Egypt, but added that "fundamentally, they are going to have to arrive at their own decisions about the pace and the direction of this reform".

Strike thwarted

No unrest was reported in Mahalla al-Kubra on Tuesday following clashes there on previous days.

But observers said they were expecting more angry scenes after a 15-year-old boy, Ahmed Ali Mabrouk Hamada, died of injuries sustained in those clashes.

Details are still sketchy, but workers at the country's textile industry in the city said the police used live ammunition to disperse the protesters.

The protests were sparked when security forces moved into an important local textile factory under cover of darkness early on Sunday to thwart a planned strike.

In ensuing violence, thousands of demonstrators torched buildings, looted shops and clashed with police, and there were further protests on Monday, when protesters tore down a billboard picturing President Hosni Mubarak.

The Egyptian government has promised to increase salaries and has extended its food subsidy programme to include an additional 15 million people.

More than a third of Egyptians live below or just above the poverty line of $2 (1) a day.

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