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Mubarak opens border with Gaza; Parliamentary elections held

The flotilla may have been stopped, but aid is still going to reach Gaza.

In a surprising move, Egypt today announced that its Rafah border crossing with Gaza would open to provide humanitarian assistance to the region. President Hosni Mubarak gave the order to open the crossing for the transfer of patients and medical supplies.

Cairo’s decision to (temporarily and partially) end the siege on Gaza is a sign of the diplomatic pressure facing Egypt from the Arab world in the wake of Israel’s flotilla fiasco.

Israel has maintained a complete siege of Gaza on land and sea since 2007, when Hamas took control of the tiny strip. Egypt, though, has also shouldered responsibility in the blockade, rarely opening the crossing and bolstering its border wall — from above and below — in order to prevent smuggling along its short border with Gaza.

Cairo has long had a tenuous relationship with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is a banned but sometimes tolerated opposition group and the perennial thorn-in-the-side for presidents in this secular country.

The decision to open the gates to Gaza comes after a full day of flotilla-related protests in Egypt, including one in downtown Cairo last night with over a thousand participants, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was the largest protest to hit Cairo in over a year, and the anger in the air was more than apparent. Protesters ended the night chanting “Down with Mubarak,” a fairly normal cry at a secular rally, but something rarely (if ever) spoken by members of Muslim Brotherhood, realistically aware of their precarious position in Egypt.

Saad el-Husseini, a Muslim Brotherhood Member of Parliament and vocal critic of Israel's actions on the Turkish-led aid flotilla, explained his anger. "This is a crime. We are ashamed not just of Israel, but also of our own government. Egypt is creating this blockade [of Gaza]," said el-Husseini.

Mubarak’s decision to open the border will likely appease critics at both and home and abroad and ease the political pressure from other Arab capitals.

Meanwhile, in one of the region's most under-reported stories of the day, elections were held for Egypt’s Shoura Council, the upper house of the bicameral Parliament.

A total of 88 seats were up for grabs in an election that, even here, very few are talking about. Egypt’s Shoura Council, established only in 1980, plays a smaller, mainly advisory role, as compared to the lower Peoples’ Assembly.

Polls here closed several hours ago, but already reports of electoral fraud are surfacing.

Voters in the Helwan governorate, just south of Cairo, claimed that security forces blocked supporters of the Ali Fath El-Bab, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, from entry into polling stations. Over 150 protesters gathered to voice their anger — chanting Islamic slogans in front of a local courthouse.

Journalists too were barred entry to polling stations — despite carrying government credentials printed specifically for the election.