Egyptian government steps up attacks on voters

On the last day of voting, violence broke out as police barred voters from casting their ballots.

After the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful opposition group, tripled its presence in parliament over the first five rounds of Egypt's six-round election, the government appeared to decide it would not take any chances on the last day of voting Wednesday.

Running battles at dozens of polling places were waged between voters desperate to get to the polls and tens of thousands of riot police deployed to deter them.

The dramatic footage - of riot police firing rubber bullets and tear gas, and beating voters, as civilians threw rocks in response - reminded many Egyptians of clashes in the West Bank.

Wednesday's violence appeared to be a message that the government's promises of political reform stop well short of allowing the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) grip on parliament to be weakened. But that stance could complicate the US-Egyptian relationship in the coming months.

"In the context of the past two years, particularly, the promises the NDP put forward about opening up, this has been a disastrous election,'' says Gasser Abdel-Razek, who coordinated poll monitoring for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "The level of violence was about the same as the 2000 election, but it's not a fair comparison given the promises [President Hosni] Mubarak made, the expectations that were raised."

Eight people were killed in Wednesday's clashes, raising the toll for the entire election to 10, the same number killed in the 2000 election. Hundreds more were wounded and over 1,000 arrested.

When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Egypt earlier this year, she praised President Mubarak's commitment to democracy.

But the violence and other indications of fraud at the polls prompted the United States to express concern and dismay. On Wednesday, her spokesman Adam Ereli said recent events here "raise serious concerns about the path of political reform in Egypt."

He said clashes with voters, the arrest of opposition candidates, and police abuse of journalists and election monitors "send the wrong signal about Egypt's commitment to democracy and freedom, and we see them as inconsistent with the Government of Egypt's professed commitment to increased political openness."

Had the Brotherhood, which is officially banned but partly tolerated here, won every seat it was contesting Thursday, it could have ended up with 25 percent of parliament. As it is, preliminary results show that the Brotherhood picked up 12 more seats, taking their total to 19 percent of parliament and leaving the NDP facing the largest and most cohesive opposition group in its history. The NDP will have about 74 percent of parliament, down from 87 percent in the last election.

Mr. Abdel-Razek said that 355 of the polling locations his organization monitored Wednesday - about 10 percent of the total - were "completely blocked" by riot police.

He said the real total could be higher, since his group didn't have staff at every location. He added that the impact of the government's action reached beyond the Brotherhood: The leader of the secular Nasserist party, who was tipped to win his race, was among those barred by police from voting in his district.

Though Egypt's judges had supervisory control over events inside polling places, they had no authority over the police and intelligence operatives stationed just outside. Yehia al-Rifaai, a prominent judge, told a local opposition paper that judicial supervision had failed to deliver a clean election because their authority didn't extend far enough.

"The police should be neutral," he said. "But that's not what happened."

Safwat al-Sharif, an NDP official and close Mubarak ally, dismissed the photographs and video of police violence. "The NDP is a party that abides only political efforts and knows nothing of violence,'' he said in a statement. "Our majority is the bulwark to defend the interests of this nation."

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