Limited irregularities reported in Egypt poll

Limited irregularities reported in Egypt poll

Cairo – Local groups monitoring the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections Wednesday pointed to irregularities in the polling process but stressed their scope was limited.

Opposition representatives were much more virulent in their denunciation of what they described as widespread fraud by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Overall, it’s a fairly positive assessment. There was confusion and a little bit of violence, but as monitors, we had free access,” said Ghada Shahbender from the Shayfeencom (“We are watching you”) NGO.

“The judges have been controlling their polling stations with great efficiency,” she told AFP.

Polling stations opened at 8.00am (06h00 GMT) in eight of the country’s 26 governorates, as millions of Egyptians started to elect a new parliament at the launch of a month-long polling process.

The banned Muslim Brotherhood, which led an aggressive campaign and is hoping to make substantial gains in the polls, claimed the regime was busing in workers from remote regions to cast their ballots for the NDP in Cairo.

“There is fraud everywhere, no transparency, no freedom,” Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mehdi Akef told reporters after casting his vote in Cairo’s Heliopolis district.

Like Shayfeencom, the largest coalition of monitoring groups – the Independent Committee of Election Monitoring (ICEM) – offered a more measured assessment after six hours of polling.

“In general, ICEM welcomes and highly appreciates the cooperation offered by state security services,” the coalition said.

It nevertheless listed a number incidents and complained of the authorities’ failure to inform voters of the locations for polling. ICEM also pointed out that most polling centres opened late.

Shayfeencom and the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) charged that NDP thugs had prevented access to polling stations to opposition supporters.

EOHR’s Mohammed as-Sawy only reported a few irregularities and incidents in which some of his group’s 600 monitors were denied access to polling stations.

Monitors and AFP reporters in the field noted security forces had adopted a relatively low profile and that ballot boxes with at least one transparent side were used.

The Sawasya NGO, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, claimed it had witnessed several instances of the indelible ink designed to prevent double voting not being used.

“Another violation was the distribution of ballots already filled in favour of the NDP candidate to voters in exchange for 50 Egyptian pounds (about R54),” it said.

In the Sahel district of Cairo’s working-class Shubra neighbourhood, witnesses said gun-wielding men escorting NDP candidate Ali Radwan fired shots in the air and on the ground outside a polling station, wounding several people.

But Sawasya admitted that some judges were deploying every possible effort to prevent fraud. “In Menufiya, one judge even took the ballot box with him to the toilet.”

Egypt’s judiciary issued an order three days ago allowing monitors to observe the process in polling stations but NGOs have warned that much of the fraud could take place during the counting process.

Previous parliamentary elections in Egypt have been marred by widespread fraud in favour of the ruling party and sometimes deadly clashes.

The presidential election which saw Mubarak sweep to a fifth six-year mandate two months ago was also marred by widespread irregularities although monitors noted the conditions were generally better than in previous years.

Dozens of civil society organisations have formed coalitions to field thousands of monitors in polling stations across Egypt and predicted their action would help reduce the level of fraud.

Vote-buying is nevertheless practised by many candidates, regardless of party affiliations.

Monitors stressed that the main obstacle to the transparency of the elections remained the interior ministry’s alleged tampering with the voter registers.

In a report released two days ago, the Egyptian judges’ club demanded control over registers in future elections. – Sapa-AFP