U.S. prods Egypt to clean up election

U.S. prods Egypt to clean up election

 The United States urged Egypt on Monday to clean up its elections, which have been marred by accusations of fraud, voter intimidation and a crackdown on the main Islamist opposition group.

The United States has this year prodded one of its closest allies in the Middle East to improve its democratic record despite some U.S. and Egyptian fears it could destabilize the Arab world’s largest country.

The United States has raised its concerns over the parliamentary election, which has been held over several days and will end next month, and asked the government of longtime leader President Hosni Mubarak to allow people to vote freely.

“We would urge the government of Egypt to provide an atmosphere during this election process in which the Egyptian people, all the Egyptian people, can express their will through the ballot box and not fear violence, not fear intimidation by any group,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

Egyptian police arrested nearly 200 Muslim Brotherhood activists on Monday in a crackdown on the Islamist opposition group.

McCormack cited as “sources of real concern” reports that security forces have barred some voters from casting their ballots and that election monitors have been threatened and hampered from observing polling stations.

The criticism effectively put the Bush administration in the unusual position of defending the rights of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that has increased its seats five-fold by fielding candidates as independents.

President George W. Bush vowed this year to make democracy central to U.S. ties in the Middle East and called on Mubarak to lead reforms in the region.


But Egypt’s parliamentary voting so far has bolstered the view that free and fair elections could empower Islamist parties hostile to U.S. policies in several Middle Eastern countries.

And, while a change in tone has been evident in public statements from the Bush administration this year, critics complain it has held back from demanding quicker reforms in Egypt because of such fears.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is clearly the strongest opposition force in the country, the United States distances itself from the group to avoid angering Mubarak and supports his refusal to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a party.

In keeping with that diplomacy, McCormack did not condemn the arrests on Monday of the activists from the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants greater political freedoms in Egypt and said the arrests were designed to weaken its chances in this week’s voting.

But the Brotherhood has benefited from U.S. calls for change, which have helped to open debate in Egypt and emboldened civil society groups to monitor elections much more closely.

And McCormack seemed to welcome their election showing.

“We note that there have been a number of independent candidates that have won seats,” he said. “It’s important in any democratic process — for any healthy, vibrant, growing democracy — that the results of an election reflect the will of the people.”