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Controversy Swirls Over Egypt Vote
Fraud Is Claimed by Some Groups; U.S. Lauds Step Toward Democracy

By Daniel Williams and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 9, 2005

CAIRO, Sept. 9 -- Egyptian government officials leaked partial results Thursday of the first multi-candidate presidential election to show that President Hosni Mubarak had won at least 70 percent of the vote, but controversy still swirled about alleged irregularities and fraud in Wednesday's vote.

Senior officials put voter turnout at about 30 percent.

Ayman Nour, who ran an energetic campaign as head of the fledgling Tomorrow Party, filed complaints with the Presidential Election Commission, which rejected them early Friday. "There were violations regarding the right of the voter to cast his ballot," Nour said. Independent human rights groups said they were considering filing court cases.

Government officials worked hard to persuade the public that the vote was valid. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former U.N. secretary general who heads the government's National Council on Human Rights, declared the election a "positive experience." Information Ministry officials urged reporters to accentuate the positive in the election and not focus on alleged violations.

In Washington, the State Department praised the vote. Spokesman Sean McCormack called it a "historic departure for the Egyptian people in holding a multi-candidate presidential election. . . . The debate during the campaign process was something, I think, that will enrich the Egyptian political dialogue certainly for years to come."

But the Mubarak government's efforts to get similar approval from Egyptians was hampered by the continuing disputes. Unlike in past parliamentary votes and presidential referendums, results were not announced at local polling stations. Instead, counts have been funneled to a central tabulation office that has until Saturday to release official numbers. "They have all the time they need to sculpt the result they want," said Enji Haddad, a member of We Are Watching, an independent group that tried to monitor voting irregularities.

Even as complaints were voiced over the vote, the first in which Egyptians were able to mark ballots with more than one choice for president, attention was quickly turning toward the next stage in the herky-jerky battle over changing Egyptian politics -- parliamentary elections scheduled for November.

Although Mubarak might have overcome months of assault from a variety of political opponents, even his staunchest supporters say they believe the battle will go on. Opposition leaders with competing visions for change in Egypt have made vast strides during the past few months, becoming more visible than at any time during the 24 years Mubarak has held power, his supporters say.

"Things can't go back," Information Minister Anas Fiki said in an interview. "The process has moved far."

This is also the hope of Bush administration officials who insist that the presidential vote was only a first step in converting Egypt from an authoritarian state into a democracy. Along with the war in Iraq and efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt is a key to promoting democracy in the region, in the administration's view.

In remarks made before the vote, however, senior administration officials emphasized the importance of the legislative elections. "For the near future, the parliamentary election is more important. It's not clear who will compete and who will end up where. But it's important to get all the public political energy into the political sphere, or it will go elsewhere," said a senior administration official involved in Middle East policy.

"We're looking at parliamentary elections as a time to bring in new faces and new political parties that will change the political landscape for Egypt," another senior official said.

Wednesday's election was a step in the Mubarak government's own plans to open up politics to some extent, albeit with the levers of power still held by the National Democratic Party, currently dominated by the president's son Gamal and a group of Western-oriented technocrats. They contend that reform in Egypt must be calibrated to avoid unrest that would upset free-market economic liberalization, another project spearheaded by Gamal Mubarak.

Mohammed Kamal, a member of Gamal Mubarak's advisory team, said reform plans include changes in the constitution to transfer some presidential powers to parliament and scale back emergency laws that have inhibited free speech for a quarter-century. "Our message is that we are creating a platform for change," he said in an interview.

It is unclear when the emergency laws might be lifted. Bush administration officials have pressed for them to be amended before the parliamentary vote, but President Mubarak has resisted, senior U.S. officials said.

As Mubarak has made gains, so have his political rivals. Nour, leader of a free-market party that was legalized only last October, has quickly became a prominent opposition force. Mubarak government officials were preoccupied Thursday with the possibility that Nour might have come in second in Wednesday's balloting. Some were openly rooting for Noman Gomaa, 71, the candidate of the established Wafd Party, to be the runner-up.

Wafd spokesman Mahmoud Abaza predicted the party would make a strong showing in the parliamentary vote. "The bottom line is that, the NDP aside, there are only two other political forces: Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood."

The Brotherhood, which is officially banned from politics but is widely regarded as Egypt's largest opposition force, benefited from the months leading up to the election, said Aly Abdel Fattah, an official of the Brotherhood. Nour and Gomaa visited Brotherhood leaders to solicit support. The Brotherhood issued an anyone-but-Mubarak order to its followers. Members were widely interviewed on Arabic-language satellite television. "We were participants. We got our membership familiar with the workings of elections," said Abdel Fattah, who added: "The Brotherhood plans to run front candidates in the parliamentary vote."

Wright reported from Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company