Egyptians Vote in Rare Contested Election

Egyptians Vote in Rare Contested Election

Egyptians Vote in Rare Contested Election
Egyptians Cast Ballots in Parliamentary Election Seen As Test of Mubarak’s Promise to Open System


The Associated Press
CAIRO, Egypt – Egyptians cast ballots Wednesday in their most robustly contested parliamentary election in more than 50 years, but no one expected the vote to unseat the long-dominant party of President Hosni Mubarak.

Democracy campaigners see the elections as a test of the 77-year-old Mubarak’s promise to open up the political system. Popular confidence in the polls will be demonstrated by the turnout.

The ruling National Democratic Party is pushing for a large turnout after the disappointment of a September vote, when Mubarak was returned to power. Only 23 percent of 32 million registered voters took part. An independent judicial review on Tuesday said that election was tainted.

Virtually everyone across the political spectrum expected these elections to be more open than previous ones, following a court decision that Egyptian election monitors must be allowed into polling places to guard against the rampant fraud seen in the past. But critics say the reform process has not moved nearly far enough to threaten the ruling party’s hold on power.

A record 5,000 candidates are vying for 454 seats in parliament. The elections are spread over three stages, beginning with Wednesday’s vote in Cairo and seven other provinces and followed by votes on Nov. 20 and Dec. 1.

Voting was slow but steady Wednesday. Turnout was heavier than in September in some districts, such as south Cairo’s Maadi, where hundreds were standing in line to vote within hours of the polls’ opening.

Workers for the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt’s largest, but banned, Islamist group competed with ruling party activists to bring voters to the polls.

Brotherhood supporters lined the separate male and female entrances at one polling station. National Democratic Party workers used three minibuses to bring people to the el-Khalili School station in Maadi where the ruling party offered sandwiches to voters.

Police had to intervene at the el-Minshiya polling station in southern Cairo when scuffles broke out among supporters of an NDP candidate and an independent candidate.

One voter, housewife Wafa Imam, 30, said the elections were fairer than previous ones.

"In 2000, the police prevented Brotherhood supporters from entering this street to go to the polling station, but now it is different. We are being allowed to vote even though the police know that we are Brotherhood supporters," she said.

Observers also noted that for the first time, ballot boxes were transparent.

But there were also allegations of irregularities that could not be immediately verified. In the Nile Delta district of el-Bagour, an NDP stronghold, opposition candidate Mohammed Kamil told The Associated Press that polling station officials had failed to make booths available and were watching voters mark their ballots to intimidate them into voting for the ruling party.

Mubarak cast his ballot in a school in the upscale Heliopolis district of Cairo after a meeting at his nearby palace with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The president was accompanied by his wife and son Gamal, who has played a major role in directing the ruling party’s campaign.

In a televised speech Tuesday night urging people to vote, Mubarak pledged the elections would be "fair and free." Previous legislative elections have been marred by widespread reports of fraud and voter intimidation. They have produced parliaments with little space for the opposition. After the 2000 legislative elections, the ruling party held 88 percent of seats.

Ruling party representatives have said they would like to see the opposition better represented in the new parliament, but nobody expects the National Democratic Party to lose its majority.

"The regime can tolerate an opposition, but not a strong opposition which will threaten it," Khalil al-Annani, an analyst with the local International Politics journal, told AP. "Its main concern is survival, not change."

The majority of the candidates are independents; 300 others are from various opposition groups, and 150 are supported by the Muslim Brotherhood.

This election has engaged the full range of Egypt’s political organizations, some of which boycotted both a May referendum on a constitutional change to the election laws and the presidential elections.

The biggest change in these elections came Sunday when a court overruled the Electoral Commission and granted civil society groups the right to station monitors inside polling stations.

A judicial panel that reviewed the September presidential polls pointed to secrecy and a lack of checks and balances surrounding the counting of ballots.

In that election, Mubarak faced opposition candidates for the first time but still easily won his fifth six-year term. Previous elections were yes or no referendums that have kept him in power since 1981.

Associated Press reporter Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.