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.
Below on the street, riot police dressed in black stood in rows, helmets on their heads and truncheons at their sides. Within a few minutes, marchers appeared carrying banners decorated with NDP emblems and pro-Mubarak slogans. The marchers shouted, "Come out, you cowards" and "We are Egyptians." They also shouted, "With our blood and with our soul, we will defend you, oh Mubarak."
This correspondent saw police let the pro-government marchers approach the Kifaya demonstrators. The police then pulled back from the building, apparently to give the attackers more space to fit in front of the staircase. As the pro-Mubarak marchers gathered for a charge, the Kifaya demonstrators chanted, "Here come the thugs" and "Twenty pounds, twenty pounds," the price they said such provocateurs would receive from the NDP. Twenty Egyptian pounds is the equivalent of about $3.50.
Finally, the pro-government marchers charged up the staircase. Whenever a Kifaya activist was pointed out, young men would grab him and pummel him to the ground. Eventually, Kifaya protesters were driven into the building. Some women escaped out a side exit, but a group of young men set upon Rabaab Mahdy, a political science professor at Cairo University, who had led some of the anti-Mubarak chants and who stayed behind at the entrance to the building's garage.
The men pressed Mahdy against the shields of riot police, who refused to either move or help her. The assailants slapped and punched her until she slumped to the pavement. Some of her attackers appeared as young as 20.
"They put their hands in every conceivable place. I was basically sexually abused," she said later in an interview. Mahdy escaped when plainclothes officers intervened and pushed her through the police cordon.
In the middle of the violence, Magdi Allam, an NDP official who led marchers to the syndicate site, justified the counterdemonstration. "We cannot accept that the international media consider Kifaya as representative of the Egyptian street. We have the right to demonstrate in the same place."
One of the pro-Mubarak organizers, Sameh Wekin, said his men were not responsible for hitting women. "We are decent people," he said. On the other hand, he said, men were fair game. "We hit the rude ones," Wekin said. Most of the injuries appeared to be bruises, cuts and bleeding lips.
Earlier in the day, another Kifaya demonstration was besieged near the downtown monument to Saad Pasha Zaghlul, a 20th-century Egyptian independence hero, and the scene was much the same as at the journalists' union. Riot police confined the Kifaya demonstrators to a space against a building and then permitted the pro-Mubarak crowd to launch an assault. This correspondent saw Kifaya activists hauled away one by one and beaten. One cluster of six Kifaya activists ran and took refuge in the Said Iman pharmacy.
The police stood behind the pursuers while they chanted, "Come out, you cowards."
Plainclothes security agents escorted the six away. But some in the mob pursued Iman Ouf, who works for the Development Support Center, a nongovernmental agency. Boys hit her with sticks until she fainted. She awoke surrounded by old women from the neighborhood who trundled her to a taxi and safety. "I didn't know where I was. Who were these people attacking us?" she asked during an interview at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a watchdog group.
Associated Press reporter Sarah El Deeb reported seeing one woman trying to leave a building and being pounced upon by Mubarak loyalists, who punched her, pummeled her with batons and tore her clothes. As police looked on, she screamed, then vomited and fainted, El Deeb reported.
At another clash in Cairo, El Deeb reported seeing a group of mostly female demonstrators beaten, groped, pressed into a security cordon and verbally harassed by plainclothes security agents. El Deeb was grabbed and pulled by the hair.
By about 6 p.m., the riot police and the NDP contingent abandoned the Journalists' Syndicate building. The men who had done the beating were transported away in the same big metal vans used by the riot police.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asked about the violence in an interview with Agence France-Presse, said, "I've not seen the reports that you're talking about today." She added, "We have said to the Egyptians that this process needs to be as open and as forward-leaning as possible, because political reform is a necessity for Egypt. Now, they are taking steps forward. Not everything moves at the same speed, and there are going to be different speeds in the Middle East."