The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement, accused the regime of monopolizing power through vote rigging and vowed to rally Egyptians to prevent fraud in upcoming parliamentary elections.
The fundamentalist Brotherhood is the top rival to the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak heading into next month's vote. Many in Egypt fear it will see the same widespread violence that plagued the last parliamentary elections, in 2005, when police and government-backed vigilantes closed stopped people from voting and clashed with rivals.
The 2005 vote saw widespread fraud, mainly in favor of the ruling party, according to rights groups. Still, the Brotherhood seized a fifth of parliament's seats, surprising the government. Egyptian officials have vowed not to allow a repeat of that strong showing.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday evening, the Brotherhood's leader, Mohammed Badie, said government efforts to prevent it from contesting the election had already started.
Around 200 of the group's activists have been arrested in recent weeks, and the movement says its candidates' posters and billboards have been torn down.
"They want exclusive dominance over elections and power forever," Badie said, referring to the ruling National Democratic Party. He said a decision following the 2005 vote to end supervision of polling stations by judges, who have in the past reported fraud, "shows the intention to rig the vote and cover it up."
But the 67-year-old Badie, who holds the title of "general guide" of the Brotherhood, said the Egyptian public will no longer put up with vote rigging, and that the Brotherhood would rally as many voters as possible to prevent election employees from filling out ballots — one of the key ways rigging took place in past elections, before judicial supervision was instituted.
"The real difference now is that the Egyptian people reject the theft of their vote," he said, speaking in the Cairo offices of the Brotherhood's parliament members. "Let's see whether those ballot thieves will be able to steal any vote when the vote's owner is on the alert."
The Brotherhood, which calls for rule by Islamic law in Egypt, is officially banned, but it is far more organized and popular than any of the weak, officially recognized opposition groups in the country.
Because of the ban, its candidates run as independents, and they won 88 of parliament's 454 seats in 2005. Since then, the group has been shaken by a heavy security crackdown in which thousands were arrested and top leaders tried before military courts.
This year's parliament vote comes amid uncertain political times in Egypt, with presidential elections due next year. The 82-year-old Mubarak, in power for nearly 30 years, had gall bladder surgery earlier this year, raising questions over his health — though party officials say he will run for another six-year term. Many believe he is grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him.
Badie said the Brotherhood has no intention to field a candidate for the presidency, saying the position "is a heavy burden" and it is focusing instead on advocating reform. He said the group opposes "inheritance of power" from father to son and there should be a democratic "mechanism" to choose the president.
He said the country needs a transitional period where various political forces "team up to rescue the nation from the dark path it is heading down."
Especially since 2004, the Brotherhood has sought to depict itself as a force pushing for democratic change in Egypt's authoritarian system, trying to shed an image among critics that it aims to seize power and impose Islamic law. The group, founded in 1928, was involved in political violence for decades until it renounced violence in the 1970s.
"We seek participation, not domination," said Badie, who himself served 15 years in prison in his 20s.
AP correspondent Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.