NDP hopes to keep firm grip in Egypt vote

CAIRO: Egypt’s parliamentary election Sunday was marred by scattered violence, reports of vote buying and the ejection of many independent monitors from polling stations amid what opponents say is a government campaign to clamp down.Egypt’s leadership appeared determined to keep its firm grip ahead of more significant presidential elections next year. For the first time since President Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981, there are questions over that vote: The 82-year-old leader has had health issues, undergoing surgery earlier this year.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.

In the run-up to Sunday’s voting many expected the ruling National Democratic Party to keep its grip over the new, 508-seat Parliament. Its hold was weakened in 2005 elections, when the Muslim Brotherhood surprised everyone by winning a fifth of the seats, its strongest showing ever.Tens of thousands of police were deployed at polling stations around the country Sunday. Only a trickle of voters was seen at most polling stations throughout Sunday morning, when most people were at their jobs.”The security is running the show,” said Hosny Ragab, a 60-year-old monitor, who told AP he was ordered out of a polling center at Al-Raml in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, a Brotherhood stronghold. “I showed them my Election Commission accreditation, but they insisted that I leave.” Outside the station there was an ominous standoff between supporters of the ruling party candidate – Cabinet minister Abdel-Salam Mahgoub – and those of his Brotherhood rival Sobhy Saleh, who chanted and taunted each other.At one point, busloads of women were brought in and were ushered into the polling station, as their escorts were heard telling them to vote for Mahgoub. Speaking outside the station to the AP, Mahgoub denied any irregularities.

There were scattered reports of violence. In the southern city of Qena, Brotherhood supporters threw firebombs at police after they were barred from a polling station, police said. A gunbattle broke out between supporters of rival NDP candidates competing for the same seat in the northern Sinai Peninsula town of Sheikh Zayed, wounding four people.The Brotherhood’s main website, Ikhwanonline, was blocked to users inside Egypt on Sunday, said Abdel-Gelil El-Sharnoubi, who runs the site, though several other Brotherhood-affiliated websites remained accessible.While the voting appeared less violent than in 2005, there were reports of harassment of opposition supporters, candidates and their representatives at the polls. In contrast, NDP candidates appeared to have a free hand to sway voters entering the stations, despite a ban on any campaign activities since Friday night.In the Cairo district of Matariya, supporters of the local NDP candidate were seen handing out bags of food to voters inside the polling center. The son of an independent candidate in Matariya was stabbed to death late Saturday, but his family and friends said it was from a personal dispute unrelated to the election.At another center in the impoverished Shubra El-Kheima district, election employees ate lunches provided by candidates. In back streets nearby, voters lined up to get food from tents plastered with posters of the NDP contender, Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali.

Egypt has 41 million registered voters, but turnout has traditionally been very low – around 25 percent in 2005.Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Egypt rejected US 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 that out of hundreds of activists who applied, the election committee authorized only dozens to monitor. It appeared Sunday that even some of those with papers were being turned away.Under constitutional changes passed in 2007, independent judges who used to watch voting at each station have been removed.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 figures in his National Democratic Party insist he will be their candidate. 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 succeedhim.Anti-government sentiment has shown up at persistent street protests over economic hardships. Though the economy is growing at a healthy pace of more than 5 percent annually, prosperity is not trickling down or meeting the needs of a population growing by some 2 percent annually.About 40 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people live below or close to the poverty line, surviving on about $2 a day, according to the World Bank.In Shubra El-Kheima, a supporter of the local Brotherhood candidate bemoaned that representatives of candidates had been ejected from the polling station.”The state security people at the polling stations are stopping whom they want and letting in whom they want,” said the supporter, Said Draweesh.Meanwhile, fellow resident Ali Saad was casting his vote for the NDP candidate, proclaiming, “He is one of us.” Still, Saad added, “none of them would be able to solve our problems here – Arabnews