Protesters Attacked in Cairo

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post foreign service
Thursday, May 26, 2005

CAIRO, May 25 -- A nationwide referendum on multi-party elections in Egypt turned violent Wednesday as pro-government mobs attacked and beat demonstrators on the streets of the capital.

Officials of President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party, or NDP, led hundreds of young men who attacked anti-government demonstrators. Journalists and witnesses at the scene of several incidents, including this correspondent, saw riot police create corridors for stick-wielding men to freely charge the demonstrators. Women were particular targets, with at least five pulled from the mass of mostly male demonstrators on the steps of the Journalists' Syndicate in central Cairo and subjected to slaps, punches, kicks and groping. The blouses of at least two were ripped.

The attacks, which took place at several locations in Cairo, came against the backdrop of a crackdown on movements trying to end Mubarak's 24-year rule. Opposition parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest anti-government organization, have been testing the limits of free speech and assembly in Egypt, and the government has responded with increasingly tougher measures.

In February, under local and U.S. pressure, Mubarak laid out a proposal for Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election -- changes that were voted on in Wednesday's referendum. In this year's presidential vote, candidates from established parties would be able to run, but not independents. In subsequent races, independent candidates would have to either gain the approval of parliament and a government council dominated by the NDP or belong to a party that is at least five years old.

The Bush administration has supported Mubarak's election plan, and first lady Laura Bush, visiting Egypt this week, praised Mubarak for his reform efforts. Her remarks drew criticism from opposition leaders.

Opposition groups -- including Kifaya, or Enough, the amalgam of human rights and political organizations that sponsored Wednesday's protest -- objected to the proposal and called for a boycott. On Wednesday, police detained several Kifaya activists. Arrests were also reported in the port city of Ismailiya.

Turnout for the referendum appeared light, though it was unclear whether that was due to the boycott or widespread indifference. In the morning at some polls, voting was brisk, especially at one downtown school where television crews were permitted to videotape. But in the midafternoon, journalists observing three downtown polling places for half-hour periods saw only one voter. Election officials assured visiting reporters that thousands of voters had already cast ballots and said more would do so in the evening.

Government workers suggested that a "yes" result was a foregone conclusion. "This referendum is the point of view of the Egyptian people who want to move forward," said Mohammed Said Sayed, an NDP member of a local council in Cairo who was in charge of security at one polling station. The courtyard of the school was filled with posters of Mubarak.

No results were released by midnight Cairo time, and final results were not expected until Thursday at the earliest.

Mubarak, 77, cast his ballot in the morning at an ornate government building where his path to the cloth-topped voting booth was covered with Persian carpets. State television also showed Health Ministry officials ferrying voters from the "health sector" to the polls by bus.

None of the violence was shown on government-controlled television.

At the entrance of the Journalists' Syndicate building, which houses the government-controlled union of reporters along with other professional unions, Kifaya protesters had filled a marble staircase. The demonstrators shouted "Enough!" and "Mubarak is a traitor." They also chanted, "The Americans have sold us out," in reference to the Bush administration's endorsement of Mubarak's proposal.

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