CAIRO, Egypt — Ahead of Sunday’s Egypt election, officials from the country’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and its leader, President Hosni Mubarak, said they wanted a free and open contest.
Yes, officials admitted, the Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s most powerful opposition group — had a number of candidates disqualified from their ballot, and their campaigns were dogged by police disruption. But officials said that was because religious political parties are banned under Egyptian law. All other challengers, they said, were welcome to take their best shot at the powerful NDP, the cornerstone of Mr. Mubarak’s 29-year rule here.
Tell that to Gamila Ismail.
The secular, free market-friendly, and highly-telegenic Ms. Ismail — she was a longtime television presenter — would seem to come from NDP central casting for an “acceptable opposition figure.” But the day before the election, 40 percent of her observers were told they wouldn’t be able to monitor the voting, leaving many polling stations monitored from within only by representatives of her NDP opponent. For weeks, she’s complained of vote buying by her opponent for the seat representing Cairo’s strategic Qasr El Nil district.
And Sunday morning, she found her number on the ballot had been switched form 18 to 14. Her campaign literature had reminded voters to pick “18,” something crucial in a country where many voters are only partially literate, if at all.
“It’s very clear that there is rigging of votes, [that] there are violations,” says the former wife of Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour, who was jailed after his 2005 run against Mubarak. “It’s chaotic and disorganized.”
Beatings and fraud
Across the Arab world’s most populous country, there was a torrent of reports of electoral irregularities, and Ms. Ismail’s complaints are just a small part of the chorus.
In some districts, police physically drove opposition supporters away from the polls. In others, opposition candidates were beaten, and according to Egyptian news services, at least eight people died in political violence.
The vast majority of Egyptian voters stayed away from the polls entirely, with independent observers saying turnout of below 20 percent wouldn’t surprise them.
“Voting is something you do for five minutes, then you get the same outcome for five years,” says Ammar Mohammed, an Alexandria butcher who laughed when he was asked if he’d voted. “Of course not.”
Same old tactics, says Ismail
Ismail said election day was simply a continuation of the tactics Egypt’s government has used in the run-up to the election, when it arrested and harassed opposition candidates, cracked down on independent media, and refused to allow international poll monitors.
A worn-looking Ismail, who said she hadn’t slept in 48 hours, visited the polling stations in her district, where she was thronged by children chanting her name. One polling station in her district was added at the last minute without her knowledge. When she visited the station early Sunday morning, she found it had already been closed – but supposedly 2,700 votes had already been cast.
Ms. Ismail was seeking to run in one of Egypt’s “open” constituencies. This election has also revived a past Egyptian practice of allocating special districts for women, with 64 women-only races.
Worse than 2005?
The election to fill 508 seats of Egypt’s lower house of parliament is taking place without the judicial supervision that helped make the 2005 elections, when Egypt held multicandidate presidential elections more transparent for the first time. Those elections were also held over three days, allowing thinly spread monitoring resources to go further.
Judicial supervision was rescinded by a 2007 constitutional amendment, and the US pressure that also contributed to freer elections then has largely evaporated.
“Compared with what’s going on now, 2005 was good. Now there is more control from the security, more control from the ruling party,” says Hafez Abu Saeda, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “The picture was very clear from before the election. When you prevent the civil society from observing, and prevent cameras, photos, and recording … they want to prevent anyone from becoming a witness. All of this gives us indications that this is not a transparent election.”
Mr. Abu Saeda said that representatives of independent and opposition candidates were prevented from accessing polling stations all over the country, police used violence to keep citizens from voting, and in many cases civil society observers were prevented from entering the polling stations to observe the voting. A report from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) said that errors in election lists, premarked ballots, and the late opening of some polling stations added to the violations. Websites of Egypt’s largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, were blocked Sunday.
The government’s High Election Commission said it had accredited 6,000 poll monitors. But Abu Saeda says that only 150 of the 1,115 applications his organization submitted were approved in time. An additional 250 were approved too late to get the paperwork to the observers. About 400 observers from EOHR were able to access polling stations, he said, some using a letter he had issued in lieu of official credentials.
At polling stations in Cairo’s Qasr El Nil district, the voter turnout was light. By midafternoon, ballot boxes contained only tens of ballots and there were no lines to get in.
NDP allowed access denied to opposition
At several stations, representatives for opposition or independent candidates complained that police would not allow them inside the building, and they stood outside on the sidewalk. Observers for the NDP were present inside the stations. Voters outside also complained that voters carrying flyers for non-NDP candidates were being turned away. At one voting center, witnesses said dozens of voters arrived in government minibuses and were ushered inside.
One man, who didn’t want his name used, alleged that a man inside the polling station was offering voters 100 Egyptian pounds ($17) to cast their votes for ruling party candidate Hisham Mustafa Khalil.
Downtown, a middle-aged, veiled woman waited to be let into the polling station at the Shahid Abdel Hafez school. She said she had seen Khalil’s posters everywhere, but had never seen him do anything for the people. She would vote against the NDP – if she could get into the polling station, she said.
“We want change,” she said. “I have two sons who can’t get married because they can’t buy apartments. Everything is getting worse. We are in hard times, and corruption is all around. I haven’t see any reform. Nothing has changed.”