Police Lead Intimidation in Egypt’s Polls: Report
|Friday, November 25,2005 00:00|
Police Lead Intimidation in Egypt’s Polls: Report
Egyptian security agents directed machete and club wielding gangs in attacks against voters and supporters of opposition candidates in the second round of the Egyptian parliamentary elections, IslamOnline.net can reveal.
"The (Egyptian) police were directing thugs who were attacking voters," Hossam Al-Hamalawy, an LA Times correspondent, who covered the polls in Bandar Damanhour constituency told IslamOnline.net.
Reports of wide-spread violence and voters’ intimidation in Egypt’s parliamentary polls have been grabbing the headlines of local and international media, but only few, if any, said who the culprits were.
The second round of the parliamentary elections witnessed widespread violence that left one man dead and dozens injured. Most of them were opposition members.
Bandar Damanhour – in Al-Bihaira governorate, some 170 kms northwest of Cairo -- was the site of a bitter contest between Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate Jamal Hishmat and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Mustapha Al-Fiqi.
Burning Ballot Boxes
An Egyptian lawyer with a local human rights organization monitoring the elections was inside a polling station when the thugs hacked down a door with machetes and moved into the room.
"One of them put a machete to the judge’s throat and said ’if you move I’ll slit your throat’", the lawyer, who asked that his name not be published, said.
Another thug broke open the ballot boxes and poured lighter fluid on the ballots before he set them on fire.
IOL learned that the thugs, who were led by a known convicted criminal, arrived in the company of a high ranking plainclothes officer with Al-Dawahi (suburbs) security services in the coastal governorate.
Witnesses said that the judges attempted to prevent the thugs from entering the stations and called the police, who stood outside the school. The police responded by ordering the judges to exit the school, leaving the ballot boxes behind.
The judges refused, and watched as the goon squad burnt three ballot boxes. After the thugs left a judge emerged weeping from the school, hugging the remaining box in his arms.
IslamOnline.net was shown the remains of the ballots that were burnt in Port Said. The majority were for MB candidate Akram Al-Sha’ir, who was running against NDP stalwart Mahmoud Al-Minyawi.
In Damanhour, Al-Hamalawy told IOL that men armed with clubs were harassing voters in front of a polling station in Abdel Mi’nam Riyad School.
According to the LA Times correspondent, security forces "were giving thugs directions." When Hamalawy questioned an officer, identified as Muhammad Basyouny with Bandar Damanhour Intelligence, the officer and several thugs attacked him and confiscated his camera.
Also in Damanhour, Abdel Hafiz Saeed, a journalist with Egyptian independent weekly Al-Fajr, was attacked while covering a street fight between supporters of NDP and MB.
"A police officer ordered me to leave, and when I refused I was surrounded by seven plainclothes officers armed with revolvers and dragged to a nearby police station," he told IOL.
The same Damanhour constituency witnessed more clashes when several dozen men armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails attempted to fight their way to the headquarters of Hishmat, breaking windows and attacking Hishmat’s supporters on the way.
A street fight ensued between them and Hishmat’s supporters, leaving several men injured.
Before the attackers left, supporters of Hishmat retrieved from their minibus cans of baked beans marked "Special to the Ministry of Interior Affairs", and showed them to journalists on the scene.
In some incidents the thugs turned out to be plainclothes police officers. On Monday, November 21, independent daily Al-Masry Al-Yom published a front page picture of "NDP supporters" wielding machetes.
IOL witnessed one of the men in the picture, along with twenty men armed with pipes and shovels, assaulting MB supporters outside a voting station in Mina Basal (Alexandria) Sunday evening.
Later that evening several men from the same group were seen resting behind a line of riot police that had secured a street in front of a building were votes were being counted.
Before the elections, There were strong rumors that police were releasing prisoners and hiring strongmen to attack government rivals and intimidate voters.
In the district of Karmouz (Alexandria), IOL witnessed a battle between supporters of the NDP candidate and independent candidate Saif Qabbari in front of Ibrahim Nagib School.
One of the men involved in the fight said that he was released the night before from the Karmouz police station, along with a group of other men.
"The Chief of Police told us to attack Qabbari," said the man, who only identified himself as Abdel Latif. Earlier Sunday, Qabbar’s supporters were attacked by machete wielding men.
But state-directed violence was met with resistance, in some cases, unlike in previous elections.
MB supporters fought back and in some instances prevented buses carrying groups of NDP voters from unloading in front of polling stations.
During the first round of elections, Wednesday, November 9, the Higher Committee of Elections and NGOs monitoring the process received dozens of complaints against "group voting".
Supporters of Hishmat were determined to block buses from unloading what they said were "voters from other districts".
Several hours after the polling station opened in Damanhour, the first bus, with Al-Minufiya (a Delta governorate, over 200 kms away) license plates, tried parking in front of a polling station when Hishmat supporters besieged it with clubs and stones, yelling: "You won’t forge these elections."
The bus reversed out of the street, followed by a volley of stones that shattered its windows. A cheer went up from the crowd as the bus sped away.
Later in a press conference, Hishmat said that the attackers were frustrated "kids".
"We told the government: don’t cause friction in this district, don’t treat it like other districts," Hishmat said, recalling his controversial eviction from parliament after he was elected in 2000.
While Hishmat would not say there were orders for MB members to prevent "group voting" and to fight back against the goon squads, he said that there was a difference between the current elections and the elections of 2000, when the Central Security Forces teamed up with gangs of NDP strongmen to scare voters away from polling stations.
"In the past elections the thugs intimidated people and caused them to avoid the polling stations. Now people aren’t running away. They’re responding," Hishmat said.
On its part, the Muslim Brotherhood depicted the responses by their followers as spontaneous "uprisings." In Damanhour, there was palpable anger towards the NDP over the eviction from the previous parliament of Hishmat, a Damanhour local who is popular in the region.
A voter told IOL she voted for Hishmat to "avenge what happened in 2000."
An organizer with MB in Port Said firmly denied that the leadership had asked its followers to engage in violence towards supporters of the NDP.
But IOL learned from a reliable source close to the Brotherhood that Brotherhood leaders had ordered supporters to "resist with civil disobedience" any attempt by pro-NDP gangs and security forces to intimidate voters.
Shortly before the polls closed in Mina Al-Basl (Alexandria), IOL witnessed nearly two dozen supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood standing across the street from a polling station.
When asked why some of them carried clubs, they responded that they heard a goon squad was on its way to damage the boxes.
On seeing a Reuters journalist with a camera they dropped their weapons, and linking arms, began to shout slogans.
Within minutes, dozens of riot police filed out of two buses and stood in formation between the protestors and the polling station. A commanding officer spoke with an elder from the protestors, assuring him that there would not be an escalation.
The stand off continued until the protestors fled before a group of twenty thugs armed with pipes and shovels who had emerged from around the corner.
Two officers in uniform and a man armed with a shovel corned one of the protestors and beat him before dragging him off to a police car.
When IOL asked police General Hamdy Abdel Karim, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Interior, about evidence of security forces complicity in the attacks, he responded that the question was "stupid and empty talk", averring: "You are not allowed to say this."
The Ministry of Interior Affairs and state-owned media acknowledged the widespread violence and intimidation, blaming it on the Muslim Brotherhood.
But in a show of no-confidence towards Egyptian security forces, the Judges Union that has monitored the first two rounds of elections are demanding army protection for judges at voting stations.