To be worse

To be worse
Rights groups say this year’s parliamentary vote is as fraudulent and violent as past polls but with more serious repercussions. Gihan Shahine reports 
Bystanders were amazed at the “neutrality” of security forces in the face of widespread aggression against voters
That the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) had perhaps “lost its temper,” fretting the loss of its long-standing dominance of parliamentary seats to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was how many rights groups explained the wave of violence that swept the second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday. The Brotherhood had more than doubled its seats in parliament in the first round of elections on 9 November, winning 21 per cent of the vote. In the second round, the banned group continued to reap gains, winning 13 seats in fierce competition among 1,706 candidates vying for 144 seats in 72 constituencies in nine governorates.

“The Brotherhood made unexpected gains in the first round and the ruling party reacted in a very tense manner to decrease the gains [of the banned group] in the second round,” said Mohamed Zarie, director of the Egyptian Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRAAP) and the coordinator of the National Campaign for the Monitoring of Elections (NCME). The director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights, Bahieddin Hassan, similarly argued, “the ruling party was forced to abandon its initial policy of avoiding scandals to get out of perhaps an even more embarrassing impasse of losing more seats to the Brotherhood.

“Today, the ruling party is no longer concerned about its image, committing violence and violations in broad daylight and under the supervision of local and international monitors,” Hassan told Al-Ahram Weekly.

That violence, according to the director of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, Nasser Amin, had “unfortunately escalated [on Sunday] when the Brotherhood also resorted to acts of violence to stop the NDP’s intimidation of their supporters”. Amin said the international community, which has been observing the elections as a test of Egypt’s repeated pledges for democratic reform, “decided to suddenly turn a blind eye to what is going on, perhaps because of a bilateral US-Egyptian agreement that saw violence was needed to clamp down on Islamists. The matter would immediately cast a shadow on the credibility of both the Egyptian government and the international community.”

According to Hassan, “the fraud and violence marring this year’s parliamentary polls had already revealed that the Egyptian regime had no intention whatsoever of any real democratic reform — not even a gradual or slow one — and has reinforced theories which see that reform should come from the outside. This is likely to encourage the birth of more activist reform groups, like Kifaya, which will call for a change of the current ’illegitimate’ regime and parliament.”

Hopes were high that the government was taking at least gradual steps toward democratic reform after the amendment of Article 76 which allowed for the first-ever multi- candidate presidential elections in September. Rights groups said the presidential vote witnessed less fraud than past polls and that this year’s parliamentary elections kicked off in a relatively quiet and transparent atmosphere. Analysts mention the use of indelible phosphoric ink for fingers when voting, the initial impartiality of police, and allowing local monitoring and transparent ballot boxes as all positive steps taken on the road towards democracy.

Zarie said the government “has now screwed up all the progress made in the first round” in a way that, according to Amin, “is likely to take us almost a year back, before the country initiated steps toward reform.”

But even those steps, insisted a disenchanted Hassan, “proved no more than cosmetic — a smart tactic to deal with international pressure for democratisation.”

There was almost unanimity among analysts that the Sunday vote was the worst ever, marred by the fiercest wave of violence, thuggery, and roundups since the 2000 polls. One man was shot dead in Alexandria, a Brotherhood candidate was stabbed, and many others were seriously injured in thuggery attacks around the country. Monitors reported systematic efforts by organised teams of thugs who, armed with swords, clubs and knives, moved from one station to another, intimidating voters and preventing them from entering polling stations. The thugs, who monitors said were primarily NDP supporters, set fire to 20 cars in Alexandria, kidnapped a candidate, detained a number of judges, robbed and burnt some ballot boxes.

Monitors said they were largely prohibited from entering polling stations. The Independent Committee for Elections Monitoring (ICEM) reported incidents where two of its observers were beaten by NDP supporters in Ismailia and one assaulted by a police officer in Luxor.

Rights groups said police had again abandoned neutrality when they impeded voters from entering polling stations, as was the case in the run-off elections of the first round, and rounded up around 450 Brotherhood candidates and supporters. According to an ICEM report, police reportedly fired warning shots in the air and used tear gas when Muslim Brotherhood supporters staged a demonstration after being denied access to polling stations in the Maha Tawakol and Sidi Mohamed Abdel-Rahman schools in Tanta.

“The failure of the authorities to investigate past actions of violence and intimidation encouraged this escalation of criminal activity,” said an ICEM report which called upon the authorities to investigate the offenses and bring perpetrators to justice.

Rights groups slammed what one termed the “passive neutrality” of policemen who did not attempt to stop the spread of thuggery and bribery as “clear bias to the ruling party.”

“Those thugs were registered as wanted criminals in the Ministry of Interior and the fact that policemen acted neutral toward such crimes would immediately cast doubt on the integrity of the security body,” Amin said.

“If the authorities do not take immediate action to punish the perpetrators, such violence will reach a dangerous peak in the third round when voters will not go to polling stations for fear of getting killed as was the case in the Iraqi elections.” Hassan similarly argued that passivity toward such crimes “will immediately imply that the regime condones organised and individual acts of violence and is delivering a message that survival is for the strongest.” That message, Hassan added, “is likely to encourage and even legitimise a future recurrence of violence which had started to abate over the past few years.”

The same irregularities that rights groups said almost invalidated the results of the first round of elections seemed to increase even further in the second round, including vote- buying, busing voters to polling stations in order to cast ballots for NDP candidates, and a recurrence of collective registration of voters in constituencies where they do not belong, again to garner more votes for NDP candidates. Voters’ lists remained a major violation as at least 30 per cent of the names on the lists either belonged to those deceased, anonymous people without family names or recognised addresses, or were simply repeated, civil groups said.

Rights groups were particularly critical of the Parliamentary Electoral Commission (PEC) which insisted on ignoring court rulings which invalidated results in at least 10 polling stations where voters’ lists were rigged and candidates changed their designation from professional to workers, probably to increase their chances of winning. Monitors said candidates did not change their designations in violation of court orders and that the same voters the court had ordered repealed from voters’ lists were allowed to cast their ballot in the second round.

Hassan said the PEC was formed “to actually run the polls in a way that is neither transparent nor fair, only serving the interest of some political powers.” Which, according to Hassan, was clear from the beginning when the commission first attempted to impede civil society from monitoring the elections except through the state-sponsored National Human Rights Council (NCHR) whose neutrality as a government affiliate is in question.

According to the ICEM, around 65 per cent of the polling stations observed had not opened on time and voting was delayed in the majority of polling stations because judges arrived late, as did supplies of indelible ink.

Rights groups also said the judicial supervision of the vote was far from complete, as promised by the government, not exceeding 15 per cent of the polling centres. Most polling stations, monitors said, were under the supervision of government employees with some legal training but who are not judges. Observers reported some incidents when lawyers interfered in the balloting process, ticking balloting tickets in favour of NDP candidates.

“This year’s parliamentary polls have nothing in common with true elections except in name,” Hassan scoffed. “The results do not reflect the reality of Egypt’s political life by any means.”

Civil groups said the fraud committed in the run-off elections of the first round and in the second round were enough to invalidate the results, and observers wondered how the Brotherhood was allowed to make such gains in polls that rights groups say are neither free nor fair.

Many analysts argue that the Brotherhood would have made even more gains had the polls been freer. There is widespread speculation that the government allowed Islamists to win more seats in order to persuade the international community that opposition parties were almost non-existent in making reform.

Hassan said that those who elected one of the two most prominent forces in this year’s parliamentary race — the NDP or the Brotherhood — “were either intimidated, bribed or religiously motivated.

“Voters probably knew nothing about the political agenda of the candidates they cast their votes for,” Hassan said.

The violence and fraud also discouraged the majority of Egypt’s voters from casting ballots. Official figures showed a low turnout of around 24 per cent of registered voters; rights groups argued the figure would drop to 10 per cent when taking into account the huge irregularities in voters’ lists and the fact that most voters did not care to register their names in the first place. They put little stock the government would ever allow the polls to be fair or free.