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High turnout, little violence, change face of Egyptian vote

Thursday, November 10, 2005

CAIRO, Egypt -- Turnout was better than expected Wednesday, violence was sparse and the opposition Muslim Brotherhood -- still officially banned -- ran an active and open campaign in what many viewed as Egypt's freest parliamentary vote.

Regardless, President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party faced no immediate threat to its iron grip on power.

And complaints of vote buying, polling place fights, fraudulent voter lists and other political chicanery persisted Wednesday, the first of three days of balloting that will seat 444 members of the People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

The first stage included voters in Cairo and seven other provinces, with the rest of the country voting either Nov. 20 or Dec. 1. Mubarak appoints 10 members, often women and Christians from the Coptic sect to give the appearance of greater diversity.

In a practice that would have made old-time American machine politicians envious, he said monitors reported many cases of "collective voting" -- busing government employees to a polling place in a district where they were not registered to vote for a ruling party candidate whose victory was not assured.

In south Cairo's Maadi district, hundreds of voters stood in line as supporters of candidates backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and National Democratic Party competed until the last minute to influence the outcome.

Brotherhood supporters lined the separate male and female entrances at one polling station. National Democratic Party workers used three minibuses to bring people to the el-Khalili School station in Maadi where the ruling party offered sandwiches to voters.

Police had to intervene at the el-Minshiya polling station in southern Cairo when scuffles and fist fights broke out among supporters of a ruling party candidate and an independent candidate.

But there were few reports of the widespread police harassment of opposition voters that had marred past votes, leading some members of the Muslim Brotherhood to marvel at the changed atmosphere, partly the result of a last minute court ruling that forced authorities to accept independent poll monitors.

"I can't believe what is going on. For the first time, I slept at my house the night before an election," said Mohammed al-Hadi, a computer engineer and campaign worker for the Brotherhood. "In the past, I had to disappear a week before the election day (to avoid arrest)."

For the Brotherhood, the most serious challenger to the National Democratic Party, the victory lay more in public perceptions than numbers. It has become part of the public political dialogue -- having moved clearly into the open and away from its government-imposed role as a banned Islamic group.

While the Election Commission issued no turnout figures, anecdotal reports from polling stations indicated they were well above the 23 percent recorded in September presidential balloting and the 2000 legislative elections.

In the outgoing parliament, the National Democratic Party and its "independent" allies held about 388 seats -- an 85 percent majority. The Brotherhood held 15 seats. Other opposition parties had 17 seats and true independents filled 34.

Seats in the new parliament were being contested by a record 5,000 candidates. The majority were independents, most with loyalties to the National Democratic Party. About 300 others were members of various opposition groups and 150 were backed by the Brotherhood.

The biggest change in these elections came as late as Sunday when a court overruled the Electoral Commission and said human rights and civil society groups had to be allowed into polling stations as monitors. Also this week, an independent judicial panel issued a report on the presidential election in September and found what it termed a lack of checks and balances in vote counting.

"The secrecy that shrouded the vote counting by the special election committee cast doubts on the results and lacks transparency," the panel said. The 77-year-old Mubarak easily won his fifth six-year term. He faced opposition candidates for the first time. Previous elections were "yes" or "no" referendums on his regime, which has held power since 1981.


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