Charges of fraud and abuse follow Egyptian vote

Journalists, politicians say Mubarak is using intimidation tactics to squelch criticism.

About an hour after polls closed in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary election last Wednesday, Al Jazeera talk-show host Ahmed Mansour was attacked outside his TV station's headquarters here.

Two men approached him and asked if he was indeed Mr. Mansour. When he said yes, they began beating him, the journalist recalled.

The attack is widely believed to be politically motivated. In recent episodes of his weekly interview show, "Without Borders," Mansour addressed the emergence of the the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics, and interviewed an Egyptian judge about alleged electoral fraud.

Many among Egypt's opposition say it is just one example of the government of President Hosni Mubarak resorting to its traditional heavy-handed tactics to squelch criticism, especially during the country's parliamentary poll, which began last week and will continue through mid-December. The ruling National Democratic Party won 26 seats in the first round, while candidates backed by the Muslim Brotherhood won four. An additional 133 races will be decided in runoffs Wednesday.

But after the first round of voting, opposition groups alleged vote-buying, ballot-box stuffing, and voter intimidation. Among those crying foul is Tomorrow Party leader Ayman Nour, who placed second in September's presidential vote but lost his parliament seat last week.

The attack on Mansour exemplifies the precarious status of the independent media in Egypt. During his reelection campaign in August, Mr. Mubarak reiterated past promises to strengthen press laws in order to provide more protection for journalists. But journalists continue to be hauled into court and imprisoned.

"The man [Mubarak] realized that if he opened the press he would find himself regularly attacked, so he just decided to keep the old laws - and there has been no progress," says Hisham Qassem, publisher of the independent Egyptian daily Al Misry Al Youm. Three of Mr. Qassem's reporters face jail terms for articles critical of the government.

At a rally for an independent parliamentary candidate earlier this month, Heba al-Qudsi, a journalist with the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat, was beaten by a gang and her camera was stolen. And last November, the outspoken editor of a weekly opposition paper, Abdel Halim Qandil, was kidnapped by men he alleges were tied to state security.

Though no one can say for sure who is responsible for such attacks, investigators are consistently unable to turn up so much as a clue to the perpetrators' identities.

"This assault on Mansour is one in a series of attacks on journalists," Qassem says. "There is a long track record, and our minister of interior and our prosecutor never seem to find out who is responsible for any of these attacks."

Mansour dismissed the attack as just another example of an Arab regime taking shots at his network simply because of its job. "I think all Arab governments hate my program, and hate Al Jazeera, but what can I do?" he asks. "They don't like the truth I introduce on my program. Bush complains, the Syrians complain, everyone complains, so I think that means we're doing something right."

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