Police Scuffle With Female Voters in Egypt
Wednesday, December 7,2005 00:00
By (AP)

Police Scuffle With Female Voters in Egypt

Police wrestled with women and fired tear gas as voters tried to break blockades that police had erected around polling stations in opposition strongholds in this Nile Delta city Wednesday, the final day of Egypt’s parliamentary elections.

Government supporters armed with knives, bottles and machetes attacked voters lined up trying to cast ballots, sparking clashes between them and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the government’s main rival.

Interior Ministry spokesman Ibrahim Hammad issued a statement saying "the election process is going normally," apart from 10 polling stations where he accused Brotherhood "thugs" of causing disturbances.

He said police are protecting the judges who supervise polling stations "and helping the voters to reach the ballot box," Hammad said.

Egypt’s three-stage elections, which began in November, have been plagued by increasing violence as police and government supporters try to put down a strong showing by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which so far has increased its presence in parliament fivefold.

The United States sharply criticized the violence, including "intimidation and harassment" and abuse of monitors and voters by Egyptian authorities.

"We’ve seen a number of developments over the past couple weeks during the parliamentary elections that raise serious concerns about the path of political reform in Egypt," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Tuesday.

"Clearly, these actions send the wrong signal about Egypt’s commitment to democracy and freedom, and we see them as inconsistent with the government of Egypt’s professed commitment to increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society."

Washington has pressed President Hosni Mubarak, one of its top allies in the region, to bring greater democracy to Egypt, making the country the cornerstone of President Bush’s policy of encouraging reform in the Middle East.

But Wednesday’s voting - a runoff to the third and final round of the elections - saw a continuation of the violence and police blockades in Brotherhood strongholds.

"What are you afraid of? Why aren’t you letting them inside?" Mohammed al-Mursi, the Brotherhood candidate in Zagazig, shouted at police, who sealed off a polling station in the Nasiriyah district, preventing hundreds of people from voting.

Police blocked the station even before polls opened. When a judge who was supervising polling arrived and protested, the police opened their ranks to let him and a few women enter, but then resealed it.

A group of about 25 women then pushed through the cordon but were stopped by other police who rushed and held them.

"Nobody is entering here," a police officer yelled to the crowd, which continued to push the phalanx of officers. The polling station’s doors were closed.

One woman who did manage to vote, Umm Mohammed, 45, criticized the police, saying: "The right to vote is the simplest right for any Egyptian."

At another Zagazig station, a battle raged between Brotherhood members and government supporters wielding knives who attacked voters trying to push their way through the police blockade. Police fired tear gas canisters from time to time but did not arrest the government supporters. One would-be voter was bleeding from the head.

The government has arrested hundreds of Brotherhood members ahead of Wednesday’s voting.

The Brotherhood has 35 candidates in Wednesday’s runoff for the remaining 127 of 444 seats in parliament. Polling is taking place in nine provinces where no candidate received more than half the vote in the third round of polling Dec. 1.

So far, Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party and its allied independents have won 222 seats. The Brotherhood has taken 76 seats, a large jump over the 15 seats it held in the outgoing parliament.

Independents have won two seats and other opposition parties have taken 11.

In the Delta town of Dumyatt, police were firing tear gas and rubber bullets at voters during clashes outside at least one poling station, Brotherhood officials said.

In the north Sinai town of el-Arish, voters waited for hours outside two polling stations that were blocked by lines of police, and clashes broke out between voters and police, an AP reporter said.

An Interior Ministry official said at least 30 people had been injured in clashes in el-Arish and three Nile Delta provinces.

In the southern city of Sohag, about 400 voters waited outside the Mohammed Farid School, which was being used as a polling station, but police blocked them from entering.

"They say the school is closed. They want to allow only NDP supporters to vote here. I’m very upset. This injustice must stop," said grocer Abdel Moneim, 55.

The head of the General Elections Committee in Sohag, Judge Abou Magd Issa, said he had received no written complaint about barring voters from polling stations.

Asked why he did not walk to the school, 150 yards from his office, the judge said: "I have people visiting the polling centers and reporting to me. It is up to the security services to maintain security outside the polling stations. I cannot control them."

Violence in the three-round elections has left two people dead and dozens injured. Independent monitors and human rights groups have reported numerous irregularities, including busing of state employees to polling stations, tampering with ballot boxes, blockading of polling stations, and bribing, intimidating and attacking voters.

Judges have set aside the outcome in three constituencies, leaving six seats undecided in regions where voting was deemed too fraudulent or violent to let stand.

In the outgoing parliament, the NDP had 398 seats, the Brotherhood controlled 15, and true independents 23 and opposition legislators held 16.

The Muslim Brotherhood calls for implementing Islamic law but has long been vague about what this means. It campaigns for head scarves for women and against immodest dress, but it insists it stands for a more moderate version of Islam than that followed in Saudi Arabia.