Egyptian Voters Impeded In Opposition Strongholds

Egyptian security forces barred voters from entering polling centers in opposition areas Monday during the first national elections since the U.S.-backed government of President Hosni Mubarak pushed through constitutional changes that analysts say were intended to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

In Awseem, a dusty town north of Cairo that is a Brotherhood stronghold, security officers lined up behind chest-high plastic riot shields to block all entrances to a locked polling place. Officers clenching automatic rifles alongside a row of police wagons effectively sealed off another voting site.

Residents in other towns around Egypt on Monday complained of police turning them from the polls and occasionally beating them. One person was killed in election-related violence, the Associated Press reported.

In areas loyal to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, voters surged into polling sites. In Bortos, also north of Cairo, a girl of 15 said she cast a ballot for the NDP, and children who appeared much younger than the voting age of 18 waved fingers stained with the pink ink used to mark ballots and boasted that they had voted.

“See him?” a young man shouted from the window of a bus as he and others rode away from the polling site. He reached out to slap a poster, taped to the bus, of the governing party’s candidate in Bortos. “This NDP guy is going to win, either way!” the man shouted.

A national referendum in March approved constitutional amendments, championed by Mubarak, that gave limited legislative authority to parliament’s upper house, which was previously an advisory body. Other changes enshrined legal prohibitions against religiously based political parties, removed requirements that judges supervise voting in elections, made it easier for the president to dissolve parliament and allowed the suspension of constitutional civil liberties in cases the government deems involve terrorism.

Human rights groups said those changes and Monday’s shutdown of opposition polling sites were aimed at the Brotherhood, a politically active Islamic group officially banned in Egypt since 1954. In 2005 parliamentary elections, Brotherhood candidates running as independents became the single largest opposition bloc.

Monday’s vote, a first round of balloting for 88 of the upper house’s 264 seats, served as the first test of the new measures. Nineteen Brotherhood candidates made Monday’s ballot; nearly as many were disqualified through the constitutional changes and other means.

“Together with the constitutional amendments that outlawed any kind of political activity informed by religion, it really looks like the government is determined to shut them out of the political process entirely,” Elijah Zarwan of Human Rights Watch said of the Brotherhood.

The presence of security cordons outside the polling places in Awseem, an hour’s drive from Cairo, discouraged thousands of residents from voting, said Abdul Basses Himida of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

Some polling officials simply instructed voters to go away, residents said.

“They told me, ’Oh, there’s no election today. Try tomorrow,’ ” said Adel Achmed Khamil, who went to polling places here throughout the day to try to cast a vote for a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“They told me there was no electricity,” Khamil said. Finally, “They told me, ’No, we’re not letting anyone in today,’ and closed the door with chains.”

Officials turned away Himida, who was registered to vote in Awseem, from the polling center, telling him no voting was taking place there. The polling center was blocked by security forces.

Mohammed Shahed stood in the door of his grocery store on a brick-faced alley lined with Brotherhood posters that were all but obliterated by thick dousings of red paint.

Shahed had always voted before, even when security forces tried to turn him back, he said. “Since they lifted judicial supervision” with the March constitutional changes, “I decided it’s no use. I know that unless there are judicial officials there, there are no elections in fact.”

Turnouts in Egypt generally are low, in part owing to Egyptians’ doubts that their votes matter.

Egypt’s government and others in the Middle East fear that movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood will win power through the ballot box by appealing to voters who want more religiously observant governments and who resent the reigns of entrenched leaders.

Mubarak’s government has arrested about 800 Brotherhood members in recent months. Many were arrested since campaigning began for the upper house, known as the Shura Council. Brotherhood leaders have insisted on retaining the slogan “Islam is the solution.” Under the new constitutional changes, security forces have arrested some Brotherhood members as they erected banners or tried to register.

Brotherhood members charge that the ruling party’s use of an Islamic crescent as one of its party symbols, as well as references in the constitution to Islam, also violates the new constitutional changes.

Rights organizations and many ordinary Egyptians have accused President Bush of backing away from calls made by past U.S. administrations for democratic reforms here. Egypt is one of the United States’ main allies in the Middle East.

Bush spoke out on behalf of Egyptian dissidents at a speech in Prague last week, saying he regretted that one former Egyptian government official now in jail in Egypt could not attend the function. He listed Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as countries that “have a great distance still to travel” in making democratic reforms.

“America has let us down,” said Salah Noman Mubarak, a 54-year-old plant technician in Alexandria, who along with all other Brotherhood candidates was kept from the ballot in that city. “I have always respected the United States, but the United States since the time of Roosevelt has let us down,” the candidate said. “Especially these days.’’

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