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EGYPT: Opposition cries foul in final voting day

CAIRO, 8 December 2005 (IRIN) - In a highly charged conclusion to an already dramatic month of parliamentary elections, the runoffs for the third and final round of voting were marked by violent clashes between voters and security forces, charges of widespread election fraud and the arrest of an opposition party chief.

“The actions of all those who partook in the violence and corruption need to be investigated,” said Amin Mohamed Amin, director of the state-run Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“All sides were responsible, and this complete lack of civil order has emerged as the most important problem today – more important than the issue of parliament itself.”

Results of the vote are still subject to change, although initial reports suggest that more gains have been made by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had already secured more than 15 percent of the 444 elected parliamentary seats in the first two rounds of voting.

According to numerous reports, much of it carried on Arabic-language satellite news channels, voting in the final runoffs was marred by exceptional violence, resulting in at least eight deaths.

This brings the total number of election-related fatalities up to 11 since the three-round voting process first began on 9 November.

Eyewitnesses in numerous districts claimed that voters were repeatedly prevented from accessing polling stations by security forces and plainclothes agents.

While similar violations were reported in the first two rounds, observers say the government went to exceptional lengths to disrupt ballot casting in the final round by employing heavy-handed intimidation techniques.

“The pressure reached its peak during the third round, and, most blatantly, during yesterday’s runoffs,” said Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. “Security forces fired live rounds at voters, used tear gas and impeded voters from entering polling stations.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is a banned organisation, but members of the group are standing as individual candidates, rather than a collective party, in the parliamentary elections.

In the Nile Delta village of Badawy, in a voting district in the Daqahliya governorate expected to be carried by a brotherhood candidate, polling stations were cordoned off by state security, which refused entry to would-be voters.

The Nile Delta is located near the northern city of Alexandria.

“I want to cast my vote,” one Badawy resident told IRIN angrily. “It’s my right to enter the polling station.”

In an effort to disburse groups of frustrated voters, police reportedly used tear gas and fired rubber bullets, killing two.

According to wire reports, another three people were killed in the northern Mediterranean town of Damietta, and a further three were killed in al-Sharqiya province in the Nile Delta, when police again reportedly fired on crowds of protestors.

Mahmoud Aly, who was monitoring elections in al-Sharqiya for local NGO the Egyptian Association for the Support of Democracy, described the scene as “a battlefield.”

“Security forces used teargas bombs and shot rubber bullets at voters and candidates,” he said.

The government has alleged that Muslim Brotherhood supporters were responsible for instigating the violence. But Aly insisted that disturbances were initially fomented by state security agents who attempted to intimidate voters in areas favorable to opposition – particularly brotherhood – candidates.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), in a 7 December press release, pointed to “serious phenomena observed and documented by civil society organisations monitoring in the field, which together confirm the lack of integrity and freedom in these elections and their results.”

The Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters suggest that the government stepped up pressure tactics when it became clear, over the course of the first two voting rounds, that the banned but tolerated group stood to win a significant number of seats in parliament.

“The government decided to step up pressure during the final round in the face of the electoral threat posed by opposition candidates,” Abul Futouh said. “What these elections have proven is that we do not live in a democratic country, nor is our government or ruling party democratic.”

“It is authoritarian and its leader has unlimited powers,” he added.

Last month, the brotherhood captured 47 seats in the first voting round, going on to win another 29 in the second, bringing the group’s parliamentary presence to a total of 76 seats of the popular assembly, up from a mere 15 previously.

According to initial reports, the group took another 12 seats in today’s runoffs, giving it a total of 88 seats in Parliament – almost one fifth of the lawmaking body.

The ruling party, meanwhile, headed by longtime incumbent president Hosni Mubarak, picked up approximately 135 seats in the final round, on top of the 190 it won in the first two rounds. This brings the NDP’s total to approximately 325, more than the two-thirds majority needed to introduce legislation.

Notably, only 33 percent of the NDP’s winning candidates officially ran under the banner of the ruling party; most ran as independents only to join the party once they had won the vote.

Other parties – including the neo-liberal Wafd Party, traditionally touted as Egypt’s second strongest party – won a total of only 14 seats between them, highlighting the weakness of the secular opposition.

Still, final results have yet to be issued, and additional runoffs for 19 seats are expected to be held in the coming weeks after a higher administrative court noted “legal problems” in certain districts.

A further 10 MPs will then be appointed by the executive, as is stipulated in the national constitution.

While turnout officially averaged 34 percent of Egypt’s approximately 32 million eligible voters, most impartial observers put the figure at less than 25 percent.

The ruling party is set to maintain its considerable majority, ensuring it continued control over the People’s Assembly.

Nevertheless, observers point out that the considerably higher proportion of seats held by opposition representatives will, at the very least, make the NDP more accountable to its critics.

“The brotherhood still won’t have a parliamentary majority, so it won’t be able to oppose legislation initiated by the executive branch,” said Josh Stacher, a Cairo-based researcher specialising in Egyptian domestic politics. “But the majority NDP bloc will now be more easily challenged; it will be forced to explain itself a lot more.”

In an effort at damage control, Cairo has kept up its offensive against opposition groups and figures, reportedly rounding up hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members in the last several days.

Additionally, opposition party chief Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in presidential elections earlier this year, was arrested by authorities on 6 December.

Nour, who heads the recently established liberal Al-Ghad Party, is being held on fraud charges that his supporters insist are politically motivated.

On Wednesday, a US State Department spokesman criticized Cairo’s handling of the parliamentary elections, saying that the many irregularities reported in the final round raised “serious concerns about the path of reform in Egypt.”


Themes: (IRIN) Governance



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