Egypt picks parliament amid allegations of fraud

By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 5:18 PM

CAIRO - Members of Egypt's largest political opposition party braced for a bruising defeat in parliamentary elections held Sunday amid reports that proxies of the ruling party committed widespread fraud and prevented election monitors working for rival candidates from monitoring the polls.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders said government security forces and election officials kept their delegates from entering dozens of polling stations and prevented many of their supporters from casting ballots.

"The government has used all the means to prevent people from going to polling stations," Muslim Brotherhood campaign coordinator Mohammed Mursi said Sunday night as the polls were closing. "It seems the regime does not want to have real opposition in parliament."

The contest for the lower house of parliament's 508 seats is widely seen as a precursor for next year's presidential election, which could mark the first transition of power here in more than three decades.

It comes at a time of growing public anger over rising inflation and unemployment that has widened the country's income gap.

President Hosni Mubarak, 82, has been treated for undisclosed ailments. Many Egyptians assume he is grooming his 46-year-old son, Gamal, to succeed him, but the younger Mubarak is not widely liked within the ruling party.

The crackdown on the opposition has led Egyptians who favor a more open political system to criticize the Obama administration for what they call its lackluster commitment to expanding democratic freedom in the Middle East. Egypt is among the top recipients of U.S. aid, having received $1.55 billion this year.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Egyptian security forces detained hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and disqualified many of its candidates, an apparent effort to curb its political clout before a transition that could be destabilizing.

Muslim Brotherhood candidates won 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary election, its strongest showing in history. The party is nominally outlawed in Egypt, but it fields candidates as independents.

Because many of the secular opposition parties boycotted the vote, the ruling National Democratic Party is widely expected to secure near absolute control of parliament.

Opposition politicians and human rights activists said they recorded dozens of cases of ballot stuffing, vote buying and voter intimidation. Outside several key polling stations, bands of men in civilian clothes beat back voters and supporters of opposition candidates, in some instances working in coordination with police forces, human rights activists and witnesses said.

"It's a situation in which the ruling party has a relatively free hand to manipulate the results," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was among the group's representatives monitoring the situation outside polling stations Sunday. "The government's objective seems to be to make voting simultaneously dangerous and futile to discourage everyone other than those mobilized by the ruling party from going to the polls."

In Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city and a Brotherhood stronghold, opposition candidates described overt violations.

"The ballot boxes arrived full," Brotherhood candidate Sobhy Saleh said in an interview Sunday morning. "The will of the people is being stolen."

Sunday night, an aide said Saleh had been wounded in clashes and was recovering at a hospital.

At the polling station at the Hoda Shaarawy School in Cairo's upscale Dokki neighborhood, women dressed in headscarves banged on the green gate, pleading to be allowed to cast votes. Election officials held them at bay for most of the day, and only opened the doors to allow in voters bused in by NDP activists.

"If they had simply told us there would be no election, we would have accepted that," said Fatima Khadri, 31, one of the Brotherhood observers who said she was not allowed to monitor the vote. "Why make us go through this trouble."

Ruling party officials said Brotherhood monitors were not allowed to witness the voting because NDP monitors arrived to the stations earlier, filling up all the slots.

"All the observers inside are from one side," Hatem Hanafi, one of the Muslim Brotherhood observers who was turned away. "We can tell this will be an unfair election."

As he spoke, backers of the NDP distributed boxes of food to prospective voters and drove around in pickup trucks chanting campaign slogans blasted through loudspeakers.

"If we win 10 seats, that would be good," Brotherhood supporter Abdullah Sherkawy said with resignation.

The Muslim Brotherhood favors strict adherence to Islamic law, which many Egyptians shun. But it has developed a loyal following in poor areas by providing social services.

Egypt disregarded calls from Washington that it authorize international observers to monitor the voting. It also refused to suspend an emergency law that gives the state wide latitude to suppress gatherings and rallies.

NDP officials played down the severity of the fraud.

Ruling party officials Sunday night predicted they would do well in the count.

The party's candidates, the NDP said in a statement, were "faced with huge competition, but [remain] fully confident of their ability to reach the electorate among [whom] they have been working for years."

Among the statements it posted was one about the junior Mubarak's experience casting his ballot.

"Mubarak had to wait in a long line of voters in front to the polling station until he managed to get his turn to vote in the elections."

Special correspondent Mandi Fahmy contributed to this report.

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