Police firing tear gas and rubber bullets blocked voters from reaching polling stations in several electoral districts around the country Wednesday and at least eight people were reported killed on the violent and chaotic last day of Egypt's fiercely contested parliamentary elections.
Clashes between riot police and irate voters broke out in several towns that were strongholds of opposition to President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Police have increasingly intervened in the parliamentary vote, which was spread out over almost four weeks when it became clear that candidates representing the formally outlawed Muslim Brotherhood would win a significant number of the contested seats.
Here in Badaway, the Nile Delta home town of one Brotherhood candidate, dozens of police officers blocked the streets and alleys leading to the lone polling station, preventing anyone from voting throughout the day. Youths occasionally rushed the cordon of black-clad and helmeted officers, who fired tear gas and rubber pellets in response.
"Why doesn't the government just spare everyone the trouble and declare its own candidate the winner and skip the vote?" said Ahmed Farouk, a pharmacist who spent the day videotaping the sporadic melees.
"Our experiment in democracy has come to a bad end," said Ghada Shahbender, a monitor for the independent human rights group We Are Watching. She said she toured four polling stations in the Delta region north of Cairo that were shut by police. At one, in the small town of Kafr Mit Bashar, townspeople tried to negotiate with police to let them vote. During the negotiations, the police began firing tear gas and beating voters with truncheons. Several people suffered bloody gashes on their heads and one child's arm was broken, Shahbender said.
Kafr Mit Bashar is a stronghold of a candidate from the opposition Wafd Party who was running against the brother of a member of Mubarak's presidential staff. It was one of a handful of places where Wafd had a chance in Wednesday's runoff, which followed a first round of balloting last week.
Ahmed Mecci, a judge and election monitor, told reporters in Cairo that police had sealed off 20 polling stations. Ibrahim Hammad, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, said there were "10 problems" at polling stations due to violent crowds.
There were major clashes in the northern Mediterranean town of Damietta, where television images showed police firing tear gas and rubber bullets outside of polling stations. Three men were killed in the town, hospital and human rights sources told the Associated Press.
Three people were killed in Sharqiya province, including a 14-year-old boy and a 22-year-old man shot in the head in the village of Qattawiya when police fired on crowds, the Associated Press reported. Two other men died of gunshot wounds in Dakahliya province, also in the Nile Delta, police and hospital sources told the news agency.
Wednesday's violence fit the pattern of Egypt's zigzag democratization of the past 14 months. Unprecedented open criticism of, and demonstrations against, Mubarak's 25-year rule have alternated with police crackdowns and arrests. Voting monitors have been allowed to operate in some instances and banned in others. Many candidates have campaigned freely and then been subject to sudden detention.
On Tuesday, Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in the presidential election last spring, was jailed pending a verdict on fraud charges in which the key witness has said he was forced by police to testify against Nour. Police have rounded up hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood activists in the past few days.
The Bush administration has praised Egypt and Mubarak for instituting democratic political reforms, but its statements about this month-long voting process and the mounting reports of violence and intimidation have at times been uneven.
On Wednesday, State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli criticized the elections, saying: "We've seen a number of developments over the past couple of weeks during the parliamentary elections that raise serious concerns about the path of reform in Egypt."
On Dec. 1, however, after Egyptian police had begun their campaign of arresting candidates and beating voters, spokesman Sean McCormack said the State Department had "not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian government isn't interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections."
The Egyptian government receives $2 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance each year, second only to Israel.
In elections over the past month for 444 parliamentary seats, Mubarak's National Democratic Party has so far won 205. The Muslim Brotherhood, the banned movement whose members run as independents, has won 76 seats and was vying for another 35 on Wednesday. The Brotherhood held only 15 seats in the last parliament.
Final results will be issued Thursday or Friday, officials said.
The election results appear to have drawn both groups to the center of politics in Egypt, which for decades has been a one-party state under the tutelage of Mubarak and his son, Gamal.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned from political activity since 1954, after two decades of tumultuous activity that included the assassination of its enemies. The group renounced violence under Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat. In March 2004, the Brotherhood issued a list of reform initiatives that committed the group to a parliamentary and democratic course. Now its leadership insists it is prepared to play by democratic rules, although many of its members insist that Islamic law should supersede national legislation.
The Brotherhood's popular appeal in Egypt is difficult to gauge, though Brotherhood strongholds include Alexandria and the Nile Delta. In Badaway, it was unclear whether the popularity of Tarek Qutb, the local candidate, stemmed from his Islamic roots or his hometown appeal. In any case, residents claim that 14,000 voters were ready to cast ballots for him. "Qutb is from here and we like him. People also want change, even if they are not simply for an Islamic candidate," said Abdel Hami Abdel Wahad, a voter whose face was covered with red pockmarks after he was hit with rubber pellets the size of pebbles.
Badaway, about 120 miles north of the capital, Cairo, sits on typical flat Delta land lush with wheat, alfalfa, sugar cane and bananas. Farmers hoe by hand and travel to market by donkey. One paved street runs through the center of the town. The dirt alleys that radiate from it are filled with trash. Shoes are a rarity; sandals are the footwear of the poor here. "Is this the Egypt of the Koran?" shouted Salva Atta, a woman who was barred from voting. "They haven't seen the anger we can unleash."
When polls opened at 7 a.m., police had surrounded the voting station. Last week, during the first round, smaller contingents of police tried to inhibit voters, but they stormed past police lines, residents said. This time, no one was allowed in. Police fired shotguns loaded with rubber pellets and sent arcs of tear gas into fields to disperse the crowd. Youths who brought the spent canisters to a reporter pointed out angrily the "Made-in-USA" labels.
Khaled Masri, a plainclothes agent in charge of the police, said that the show of force was meant only to protect the magistrate at the polling station who was administering the vote. "The young people had firebombs and stones. It is too dangerous for anyone to approach to polling place," he said.
The magistrate in charge of the polling station, Mohammed Shamy, said by telephone that voting was "flowing normally according to law. There is a line outside." At the time, no one except police stood near the building, which was visible behind a phalanx of barriers.