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EGYPT: Elections continue amidst reports of intimidation

ALEXANDRIA, 30 November 2005 (IRIN) - Standing outside a polling station in a suburb of Egypt’s second-largest city Alexandria, scores of supporters of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood protested throughout Saturday as runoffs for the second round of parliamentary elections were held in nine provinces.

Shouting out “God is great!” and “Islam is the solution,” demonstrators held up pink voting cards, claiming that security forces had prohibited them from casting votes.

“Security forces have been keeping people from entering the polling stations all day,” complained would-be voter Fatma.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has so far secured the vast majority of seats, 179, more or less ensuring its continued domination of the People’s Assembly.

But it is the strong showing made by the Muslim Brotherhood that has most surprised observers.

The banned-but-tolerated group has made significant gains, winning 76 seats so far, up from a mere 17 in the last parliament. Other opposition parties have won only 28 seats amongst them.

In an apparent effort to dissuade potential voters, riot police, armed with wooden batons and rifles, lined up in front of a makeshift polling station at El-Werdian school in the city.

“These people are not registered to vote here,” said one security official.

Although independent judges have been charged with overseeing ballot casting, reports of government intimidation abound.

Security officials forbade IRIN’s correspondent from entering the polling station.

One official, when presented with citizens’ valid voting cards, later modified his statement, saying “They already voted. They’re just causing a disturbance. Riot police are here to guard the polling station and the judges inside.”

However, none of the potential voters’ fingers were marked by the indelible ink used to identify those who had already cast ballots.

“The second round has been very difficult for us,” said Esam Eryan, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. “The government didn’t honour its promises not to intervene.”

“On the contrary, this time around, intervention by the government has been total,” he added.

According to journalist and political analyst Gamal Essam el-Din, the first day of voting saw thugs-for-hire – baltigaya in Egyptian Arabic – used to intimidate voters. “On the second day, though, the security forces fulfilled this role,” he said.

Essam el-Din suggested that there was an obvious policy on the part of the government to limit the success of Muslim Brotherhood candidates, “because they’ve already managed to secure an unprecedented number of seats.”

The brotherhood’s Eryan opined that the government was reacting to the group’s success “in a hysterical manner.”

“They are under extreme pressure because what is happening in these elections amounts to a political coup,” he added.

Elections for 444 seats in parliament began on 9 November. They are being held in three phases, the second of which ended on 20 November. The third and final round kicks off on 1 December, with runoff elections scheduled for 6 December.

The races are of particular significance because only parties with more than a 5 percent representation in parliament will be entitled to field candidates in the next presidential election, due to be held in 2011.

Judges speak out

On Tuesday, the influential Judges Club, released a statement condemning repeated violations of voters’ rights, blocked access to polling stations and attacks on judges themselves.

The club, which openly questioned the official results released on 27 November by the official Parliamentary Elections Committee, went on to cite reports of irregularities from 113 jurists supervising the voting in different polling stations countrywide.

“The security forces directly interfered with judges’ work at polling stations in areas perceived as favourable to opposition candidates,” said Nasser Amin of the Arab Centre for the Independence of Jurisprudence, seconding the allegations.

“Judges were literally locked inside the polling stations, while the security forces blocked voters from entering.”

The statement from the Judges’ Club went on to condemn police indifference to the violations, further declaring that, if the government did not reassess its current practices, judges would refuse to supervise voting in the third round.

Such a move, noted Essam el-Din, “would essentially render the vote unconstitutional.”

The government countered the judges’ appeal by saying such actions were “a flagrant violation of the law of judicial authority, which bans judges from being involved in politics.”

According to Amin, steps towards reconciliation have already been taken. In a concession from the government, for example, the judges won the right to install security cameras in polling stations in the coming round, Amin noted.

Nevertheless, Omar el-Sheikh, a judge supervising an Alexandria polling station, remains pessimistic.

“We‘ve tried for several months to extend our jurisdiction beyond the walls of the polling station, but to no avail,” he said. “While we can make sure that voting is carried out in a legitimate manner inside, we can’t do anything about voter and candidate intimidation by thugs or by security forces outside.”

Violations continue

There were also scattered reports of the kind of violence that marred the two previous voting rounds.

“Things went back to being just as they have been throughout this election,” said Nigad el-Borai of the National Commission for Monitoring Elections. “Violence, voter intimidation, the prevention of candidates’ entering polling stations – it’s the same story.”

In Alexandria, a bastion of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, security forces went so far as using teargas to disperse angry voters. There were also reports of armed thugs being transported to areas where protests showed signs of breaking out.

“The government’s strategy is clear,” journalist Heba Nasr said. “They test the waters on the first day of voting, then, on the second, block voters altogether from accessing the polling stations perceived as threats.”

Eryan complained that more than 500 brotherhood supporters and campaigners had been arrested in areas where the election’s third round will be contested.

“They were literally picked up off the streets by security forces,” he said.

Interestingly, in other areas of the country where populations are majority Bedouin, such as Agami and Mansheya in Alexandria, voting was not problematic at all.

“Things have been peaceful here all day,” said Mohamed, an NDP supporter in Agami. “You can see for yourself – no one is being harassed or prevented from voting whatsoever.”

Explaining brotherhood successes

Turnout for the elections remained low, hovering under 25 percent in some areas. Nevertheless, gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood, which must field its candidates as independents thanks to its unofficial status, surprised political observers.

“Many people are looking for an alternative to the government, which has been shown up as being corrupt,” Esam el-Din pointed out, analysing the reasons behind the group’s electoral successes.

“Meanwhile, because the government has been involved for many years in suppressing opposition parties, nobody knows about the secularist alternatives,” he added. “By contrast, the brotherhood has an impressive network of social aid and charitable works, which render it more appealing.”

Government officials, meanwhile, played down the significance of the upset.

“It doesn’t mean the majority of the population is turning to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said the election-monitoring commission’s el-Borai. “In effect, it signifies a relative increase in Egyptian political debate.”

“But only 10 percent of the population actually voted for the brotherhood,” he pointed out.

Themes: (IRIN) Governance

[ENDS]

 

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