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EGYPT: Voters Kept Away in Last Round

Adam Morrow

CAIRO, Dec 9 2005 (IPS) - The final round of voting Thursday was marred by widespread clashes between voters and security forces, and reports of intimidation.

‘Ceasefire’, read a headline in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. ‘Nine dead and dozens injured in the election’s final day – “street wars” in the cities’, the paper proclaimed.

According to numerous reports, voters were repeatedly prevented from accessing polling stations by security forces and plainclothes agents. In areas where opposition candidates were likely winners, polling areas were cordoned off to the public.

The violence followed a strong showing by the opposition in the first two rounds. Taking into account the results of the final day’s poll, opposition representatives will control almost 100 of the 444 elected seats in the People’s Assembly, up from only 40 in the last parliament.

On the last day, voters who were denied the chance to vote staged strong protests. The police fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into crowds.

Two people were killed in clashes in the Daqahliya governorate, and three in the governorate of Sharqiya, both in the Nile Delta. Another three were killed in similar circumstances in the northern Mediterranean town Damietta.

Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that some 3,000 soldiers were deployed in Bedway village in the Daqahliya governorate, where a Muslim Brotherhood candidate was poised to win.

The killing brings the toll of election-related deaths up to 12 since the three-stage voting process began Nov. 9.

Many voting irregularities were widely reported in the first two rounds of election, but observers say the last day of voting saw state security forces resorting to exceptionally harsh tactics to turn voters away.

“The pressure reached its peak during yesterday’s runoffs,” said Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Security forces fired live rounds at voters, used tear gas and impeded voters from entering polling stations.”

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies spoke in a statement of the “serious phenomena observed and documented by civil society organisations in the field, which together confirm the lack of integrity and freedom in these elections and their results.”

The government has blamed Muslim Brotherhood supporters for instigating the violence, but many doubt this. Several eyewitnesses say disturbances were provoked by state security agents in areas favourable to opposition, particularly Brotherhood candidates.

“I don’t believe that the Brotherhood was responsible for any violence,” said Tamer Saeed, resident of a low-income voting district in the capital, where two Brotherhood candidates savaged their opponents in earlier rounds. “The ones responsible are those who stopped people from voting.”

Many observers suggest that the government began employing harsher tactics after the Brotherhood’s surprise successes in the first two rounds, in which the banned but tolerated group won a whopping 76 seats.

“After the first round, the government started to step up pressure to ensure that Brotherhood candidates were defeated,” said Abul Futouh. “The government’s actions explain the defeat of several Brotherhood candidates during yesterday’s runoffs.”

Despite alleged intimidation, however, initial reports suggest that the group secured another 12 seats in the third round, giving it a total of 88 seats in the People’s Assembly – almost a fifth of the lawmaking body.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) headed by longtime incumbent President Hosni Mubarak will have between 300 and 330 seats, according to the state press. While this is noticeably fewer than the 388 NDP representatives in the outgoing assembly, it is still at or above the two-thirds majority needed to control legislation.

Highlighting the weakness of the secular opposition, other parties won a total of only 14 seats between them. This includes the neo-liberal Wafd Party, traditionally touted as Egypt’s strongest opposition party.

Final results are expected to be announced soon. But due to what a government-run administrative court called “legal problems” in certain districts, additional elections for 19 remaining seats are expected in the coming weeks. As stipulated in the constitution, a further 10 MPs will then be appointed by the President.

While turnout was officially said to average 34 percent of Egypt’s approximately 32 million eligible voters, most impartial observers put the figure at less than 25 percent.

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