Egyptians in modest numbers headed for polling stations on Sunday amid tensions following a government crackdown on the main opposition party ahead of the parliamentary polls.

A total of 41 million registered voters were eligible to vote for candidates running for 508 seats in parliament. However, the turnout, as polling progressed during the day, was low. In the 2005 elections, only 22 per cent voters cast their ballot, according to the official records.

Voting on Sunday took place under heavy security cover in anticipation of possible violence. Morning rush hour traffic was down to a trickle in the Alexandria, a hub of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Riot police, which had arrived in scores of truckloads, had been deployed close to the polling stations.

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates contesting as independents had won nearly 20 per cent of the seats in the 2005 elections, appear to have been the main target of the government clampdown. At least 1200 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested in the run-up to the polls. Its leaders acknowledge that on account of the prevailing circumstances, their candidates during the current elections are unlikely to match their 2005 performance.

Analysts point out the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is expected to win with a wide margin — a move that could strengthen the hands of present administration in conducting the more important presidential elections that are slated next year.

Sunday’s polling has been marked by reports of violence across Egypt. Police said that teargas was used to disperse rival candidates who had clashed, outside polling stations in Qena, 475km south of Cairo.

Violence was also reported from Gharbiya in the Nile Delta. In Suez, demonstrations were held by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition candidates when police prevented them from entering the polling station.

Human rights groups have alleged that the current elections have been deeply flawed. The Egyptian authorities have rejected the presence of international monitors to supervise the elections, citing the request as an infringement of national sovereignty. Further, the government has severely restricted presence of local observers to monitor the polls, Egyptian civil society groups claim. "The elections are already fatally compromised," Al Jazeera television quoted Tom Malinowski, from the New York-based Human Rights Watch, as saying.

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