CAIRO Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest opposition bloc in the outgoing parliament, and a smaller party withdrew on Wednesday from an election they said was rigged by thugs, ballot box stuffing and other ploys.
Sunday's first round set up President Hosni Mubarak's party for its usual sweeping victory after run-offs due to be held on December 5. Government officials said the race was free and fair.
Independent Egyptian monitoring groups said the result was discredited by abuses. The United States, Egypt's ally and major aid donor, said it was disappointed by the conduct of the poll.
Analysts said the brazen way the ruling party shunted out the Brotherhood and left other parties with just a handful of seats could help galvanize opponents seeking political change before next year's presidential election.
"The regime has forced a reaction from the opposition to reconsider its course and try something new. The more repression the state exercises the more it forces a fractured opposition to unite," said Shadi Hamid from the Brookings Doha Center.
Analysts said the government wanted to silence its Islamist critics in the assembly to ensure a smooth presidential race.
Mubarak, 82, whose health has been under renewed scrutiny since gallbladder surgery in March, has been in power for almost three decades and has not said if he will seek another six-year term. Officials indicate he will, if he is able.
The Brotherhood, which controlled a fifth of seats in the outgoing parliament but emerged from the first round with none, said it would not contest run-offs for 26 of its candidates.
"We hope this decision to boycott will unite opposition forces," Mohamed el-Katatni, the head of the parliamentary bloc who lost his own seat, said after the Brotherhood's leader announced the decision to quit.
The liberal Wafd party, which controlled 12 seats in the outgoing assembly, making it the second biggest opposition bloc, also said it was pulling out. It won two seats in the first round and was set to contest nine run-offs.
Wafd, which analysts say often hovers between government and opposition camps, said it would decide on Thursday what to do about the two seats it won. It said the vote was "scandalous".
"WILL OF THE VOTERS"
The High Elections Commission said any abuses were being checked but would not undermine what it called a fair vote.
Ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) Secretary-General Safwat Sherif said the Brotherhood had lost the electorate's confidence. "The point is not a parliament without opposition, but a parliament that represents the will of the voters."
But analysts said that crushing Islamists in the assembly might empower radicals who believe the Brotherhood's stated strategy of using only peaceful means to achieve a democratic Islamic state has failed, adding to other public frustrations.
"You have a maximization of power by the elite but at the same time you have increasing levels of discontent," said Barak Seener of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Analysts said frustration at the monopolization of power may add to grumbling about low wages and food prices rising at more than 20 percent in a country where figures show a fifth of the 79 million people live on less than $1 a day.
The White House said it was disappointed with the conduct of Sunday's voting, citing "worrying" problems with restrictions on poll monitors, the press and on freedom of speech.
Egyptian officials rebuffed the criticism, saying it reflected preconceived ideas about Egyptian elections. The government had rejected a U.S. call for international monitors.
State media reported that the NDP won 209 of the 508 seats up for grabs. Egypt's official news agency said 114 of the seats in run-offs were guaranteed wins for the NDP because they were seats where NDP candidates will be pitted against each other. NDP candidates will contest most other run-offs as well.
The NDP fielded far more candidates than seats, a move a party official said was partly to squeeze the Brotherhood.
In the election, 508 seats are up for grabs, with a further 10 appointed by the president. That means this parliament has 518 seats compared with 454 in the outgoing assembly. Extra seats reserved for women were added this time.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Shaimaa Fayed and Mohamed Abdellah; writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Mark Heinrich)