Egyptians start parliamentary voting

Egyptians started voting on Wednesday in parliamentary polls expected to see President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party retain its grip on power, amid accusations of mass fraud from the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

Thousands of polling stations opened for the first round of the initial phase in legislative elections that will last a month and are expected to see opposition parties make a small dent in the ruling party’s dominance.

Despite abundant reports from parties and independent monitors of irregularities committed by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), little of the often-deadly violence that had marred previous elections was reported.

“There is fraud everywhere, no transparency, no freedom,” Muslim Brotherhood supreme leader Mohammed Mehdi Akef told reporters after casting his vote.

Surrounded by supporters chanting the banned movement’s slogan “Islam is the solution”, Akef lashed out at the NDP.

“It is using dirty, fraudulent methods,” said Akef, whose movement clearly emerged as the main opposition force during the campaign. “The regime is determined to continue on the path of corruption.”

Akef’s deputy Mohammed Habib said the NDP had been busing in workers from regions that are not voting this week to cast their ballots in favour of ministers running in Cairo constituencies.

Irregularities and fights

Independent NGOs listed widespread irregularities in the polling process, from the absence of indelible ink to the intervention of NDP thugs preventing opposition supporters from entering polling stations.

“Most of the problems are happening outside the polling stations, since the judges are doing a superb job of supervising inside the stations,” said Ghada Shahbender, from the Shayfeencom (We Are Watching You) group.

Witnesses said a fight broke out between NDP supporters and members of Ayman Nur’s Ghad party in the opposition movement’s Cairo stronghold, forcing a polling station to close briefly.

A reporter for news agency AFP saw scuffles break out between supporters of two rival candidates in the poor southern Cairo neighbourhood of Maadi, but they did not involve the security forces, which appeared to be keeping a low profile.

The Egyptian judiciary issued an order three days ago allowing monitors to observe the process in polling stations, but NGOs have warned that much of the fraud could take place during the counting process.

“In my constituency, 190 ballot boxes are going to be brought for counting in one single centre, which is next to a police station,” said independent candidate Ibrahim Kamel.

Personal affair

While the presidential election in which Mubarak swept to a fifth six-year mandate two months ago saw an unprecedented national debate on reform, the legislative polls are a local and personalised affair where votes are lost or won with promises of micro-projects, jobs and bribes.

In the NDP bastion of Helwan in southern Cairo, supporters of Military Production Minister Sayed Meshaal were neatly lined up outside polling stations before they even opened.

“I will vote for Sayed Meshaal because he’s NDP and he promised us to create jobs for the youth and offer training,” said Hatem Tawfiq.

The Muslim Brotherhood was also out in force, continuing in the spirit of a campaign relying heavily on welfare programmes by offering its services to facilitate the polling process.

In Helwan, Brotherhood supporters set up a laptop in front of the polling station to help voters find their registration numbers.

“The service is free, we are helping everyone, regardless of who they are voting for,” said Mohammed Ismail, as he manned the computer.

The opposition is hoping to make substantial gains during these elections, which are taking place under international scrutiny as the United States continues its push for democracy in the Middle East.

The Muslim Brotherhood hopes to treble its current seat tally of 17, but the coalition of secular opposition parties has been plagued by divisions.

The stakes are high for the opposition as a controversial constitutional amendment introduced by Mubarak earlier this year states that a party will need to hold at least 5% of seats in Parliament to field a candidate in the 2011 presidential election.—Sapa-AFP


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