Critics sharp after charges of rigging in Egyptian elections

Alleged rigging in Egypt’s recent parliament elections brought unusually sharp criticism from the country’s top ally, the United States. But critics at home have gone even further, charging the election revealed a weak ruling party that resorts to corruption even for a minor contest.

The election also caused the country’s main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, to vow it will continue to contest elections, despite what it called a massacre of democracy.

The Egyptian government insisted last week’s vote for part of parliament’s upper house was clean, and official results showed a near-sweep by candidates from President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party.

But election observers from human rights groups reported extensive ballot box stuffing, plus police blockades of polling sites to prevent opposition supporters from casting ballots — problems that have increasingly plagued elections held in the past three years.

The government faced little competition for the 88 seats in the Shura Council that were up for grabs Monday. Its top rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, was participating for the first time for the council but only in 19 races. In others, the ruling National Democratic Party faced weaker, independent candidates, many of whom were former NDP members who usually rejoin the party if they win.

That left many observers concerned that, despite the government’s claims to be embracing reform, it is only becoming more un-democratic.

“This election was very revealing of the extent of chaos, mismanagement, rigging and confusion,” Amr Chobaki, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told The Associated Press. “There was no political threat, it was the NDP competing against itself. The regime is in unprecedented weakness and decay.”

The United States, which had somewhat eased off its public pressure on Egypt to carry out reforms, was sharply critical of the latest vote.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, on Wednesday, expressed “deep concern” over reports of physical coercion and ballot stuffing.

He also criticized recent constitutional amendments pushed through by the government that “seek to reduce the role of the judiciary” in elections. Judges formerly served as poll observers, and in past votes some judges blew the whistle on rigging. The new amendments replaced the judges with a government-appointed commission.

At the heart of the government’s worries is the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group and now its most powerful opposition.

In elections for parliament’s lower house of parliament in 2005, the Brotherhood stunned the government by winning more than a fifth of the body’s seats. Soon after, the government postponed planned local elections for two years, apparently fearing a strong Brotherhood showing.

The Brotherhood has been banned since 1954 but continues to operate with its lawmakers running as independents. The constitutional changes this year also banned any political party with a religious platform — a move to ensure the group can never become a legitimate party.

About 400 of the group’s supporters were arrested on the day of Shura elections, and hundreds of others in the run-up to the elections,the group and police said.

Official results released Wednesday showed the NDP winning 69 seats outright, with 17 more scheduled for a runoff vote this week. One seat went to a candidate from a leftist opposition party and the other to an independent. The Brotherhood won no seats.

Brotherhood lawmakers and candidates criticized the vote as a massacre of democracy but said they will press ahead with contesting elections.

“We confirm and emphasize that we will never retreat, and no one will drag us to violence,” said Brotherhood lawmaker Saad el-Husseiny. “We will continue fighting and revealing the corruption.”

Some observers warned that a corrupt political system could lead some citizens to embrace terrorism.

“I don’t think that any ruling regime, even during (British) occupation, has pushed Egyptians to this extent of apathy, lack of loyalty and hatred of this country,” wrote Sahar el-Mougy in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on Sunday.

“I don’t think Egypt has practiced this humiliation of Egyptians’ dignity before … which could lead to breeding and emerging of terrorist cells in the near future,” she said.

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