Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters protested outside vote counting stations, scuffling with police and denouncing what they called widespread fraud in Egypt's parliament elections on Sunday, as the government appeared to determined to ensure its monopoly on the legislature in uncertain political times.
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The protests in Cairo and in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria capped a day of voting in which many independent monitors were barred from polling stations amid reports of ballot box stuffing and vote buying. In some places, government candidates were seen passing out cash and food to voters near polling stations.
Overhanging Sunday's parliamentary vote was the more significant presidential election set for next year. For the first time in nearly 30 years, there are questions over the presidential vote. The 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak has had health issues, undergoing surgery earlier this year. His party says he will run for another six-year term, but that hasn't resolved the speculation over the future of the country's leadership.
Fueling the sense of unease, Egyptians the past year have grown increasingly vocal in their anger over high prices, low wages, persistent unemployment and poor services despite economic growth that has fueled a boom for the upper classes.
Amid the uncertainty, opponents say the ruling party in this top U.S. ally aims to sweep parliament almost completely to prevent any future platform for dissent. In the run-up to Sunday's voting, at least 1,200 supporters of the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — the ruling party's only real rival — were arrested and many of its candidates saw their campaign rallies broken up repeatedly.
In the last parliamentary election, in 2005, the Brotherhood stunned the government by winning a fifth of the legislature, its strongest showing ever. But officials from the ruling National Democratic Party warned heading into Sunday that the Brotherhood would not keep nearly as many in the new, 508-seat parliament.
Sunday's voting saw sporadic violence — police fired tear gas in one southern Cairo district after police shut down a polling station, and in the southern city of Qena, Brotherhood supporters threw firebombs at police who barred them voting.
But a heavy presence of security forces, along with gangs of intimidating young men hanging around outside polling stations, seemed to scare off most opposition supporters. Only a trickle of voters, far less than in 2005, was seen throughout the day at most Cairo and Alexandria polls.
"People are scared to leave their homes. Anyone is afraid of the thugs," said Abeer Fathi, a 32-year old housewife in Cairo who nonetheless was able to vote for her Brotherhood candidate. "The authorities are reassured because they know people won't turn up after they scared them ahead of the vote."
After polls closed Sunday evening, around 800 Brotherhood supporters massed outside a police station where ballots were being counted in Alexandria, chanting, "No to fraud." They were confronted by several hundred riot police and truckloads of civilians touting long sticks. Brief scuffles broke out, though some Brotherhood supporters tried to pull their colleagues out of any fighting.
Several hundred others marched toward a counting center in the Cairo district of Shubra el-Kheima but were blocked by a heavy security force. Some protesters threw bottles at police, shouting, "No god but God! No to vote rigging."
At a press conference after polls closed, NDP spokesman Sameh Kashaf shrugged off accusations of fraud as "not worthy of comment."
"The Egyptians today have used their democratic right," he said, saying "a few violations" were dealt with.
Throughout the day, independent monitors from human rights groups were barred entry from many polling stations, leaving only low-level officials from the government-run election committee and police to supervise voting. Under constitutional amendments passed in 2007, independent judges who once acted as monitors no longer observe the vote.
In some places visited by The Associated Press, violations appeared to take place openly.
"The security is running the show," said Hosny Ragab, a monitor who told AP he was ordered out of a polling center at Alexandria's al-Raml district despite having accreditation from the election commission.
At one point, busloads of women were brought into the al-Raml polling
station, and their escorts were heard telling them to vote for NDP
candidate Abdel-Salam Mahgoub. Several of the women told AP they were
being paid around $7 each to vote for him. Speaking outside the station
to the AP, Mahgoub denied any irregularities. The Brotherhood candidate
in the district was beat up by alleged government supporters, appearing
to reporters bruised with blood on his shirt.
In the downtown Cairo neighborhood of Abdeen, a plainclothes policeman
in a polling station acknowledged to an AP reporter that many ballot
boxes were "fixed." The officer refused to give his name. Fawzi Mahgoub,
a poll representative for the district's Muslim Brotherhood candidate,
said his phone was confiscated after he took footage of an officer at
the same center stuffing the boxes with ballots.
In nearby back alleys, candidate representatives were seen negotiating
with recruiters who promise to bring in a set number of votes — around
$9 a vote was the going price at the moment.
"No one votes without being paid," said one voter who would identify
himself only as Mohammed. "My leg hurts, and if there was no money I
wouldn't have come."
NDP candidates appeared to have a free hand to sway voters entering the
stations. In several locations in Cairo, supporters of NDP candidates
were seen handing out bags of food to voters inside the polling center
or at tents set up in alleys nearby.
Egypt has 41 million registered voters, but turnout has traditionally
been very low — around 25 percent in 2005. Secular opposition parties
are weak, with little public support and limited resources.
Ahead of Sunday's vote, Egypt rejected U.S. calls to allow foreign
monitors to observe the election, accusing its ally of trying to play
the role of "overseer."
Egypt argued there were enough local monitors to do the job. But civil
society groups say the election committee authorized only dozen
monitors. It appeared Sunday that even some of those with papers were
being turned away.
The government sensitivity over the vote appears to stem from the uncertainty over the presidential election.
Mubarak, who underwent gall bladder surgery in Germany last spring, has
not said whether he intends to run for another, six-year term, though
senior ruling party figures insist he will. Even if he runs, a new term
would take him nearly to the age of 90, raising questions whether he
would complete it.
The president is widely thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed
him. But the 46-year-old investment banker-turned-senior party leader
faces some opposition within the party and there is widespread
resistance to "inheritance" of power among the public.