Egypt votes on poll reform as boycott urged

CAIRO (AP) — Plainclothes government agents beat protesters Wednesday, then watched as supporters of President Hosni Mubarak punched other demonstrators, in scattered violence that cast a pall over a referendum the 24-year ruler has called a crucial step towards democracy.

Women protesters in particular seemed to be targeted for beatings by both plainclothes state security agents and pro-Mubarak supporters, according to several witnesses and Associated Press reporters who witnessed the attacks.

“This is the first time this sort of beating and humiliation has taken place here in Cairo,” said Abdel Halim Qandil, a spokesman for the opposition group Kifaya.

He said it had been a problem before in provincial areas.

The government had no official reaction to the reports of violence. Egyptian security officials said the clashes were between Mubarak supporters and Kifaya members, and said they were not involved. But AP reporters witnessed plainclothes agents taking instructions from both uniformed and plainclothes government security officers.

One senior government official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said he was dismayed at the reports of violence but said there was no intentional harassment of protesters.

The constitutional referendum, expected to easily pass, required a simple majority. It would pave the way for multi-party presidential election this September, the first in the country’s history.

But opponents say the rules are so draconian that no real challenge is possible.

Mubarak has not yet said he will run, but is expected to.

Despite the scattered violence, the vote went on peacefully around much of the country. Polling stations around Cairo saw a steady flow of voters, who came to cast a “yes” or “no” vote on the constitutional amendment, passed by parliament earlier this month.

The interior ministry said about 32.5 million registered citizens were expected to vote, and turnout was expected to be a key barometer of Mubarak’s legitimacy going forward.

Results were expected Thursday, but preliminary results might be released later Wednesday.

Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party had used the state media, rallies, mosques and both Muslim and Christian religious leaders to urge people to vote.

Opponents who boycotted the vote had planned to hold a series of demonstrations, but cancelled at least one after government warnings that protests would not be tolerated.

Nevertheless, there were scattered anti-Mubarak demonstrations — many broken up by force.

Abdullah Sinawi, editor-in-chief of the Nasserite Party that boycotted the referendum, said the attacks on women seemed to be a “message of deterrence to Egyptian women against participation in political life.” In one protest in Cairo witnessed by an AP reporter, more than a dozen members of Kifaya were beaten by pro-Mubarak supporters. The protesters tried to seek police protection but a high-ranking officer ordered his security men to withdraw, allowing more attacks.

Elsewhere, an AP reporter saw 150 pro-Mubarak protesters attack Kifaya members, belting them with wooden sticks.

Demonstrators scattered, with some taking refuge inside a building.

One woman trying to leave the building was pounced upon by Mubarak loyalists who punched her and pummelled her with batons and tore her clothes, according to an AP reporter who witnessed the scene. As police looked on, the woman could be seen screaming, then vomiting and fainting.

The woman lawyer later told the AP she was stripped of her clothes by Mubarak supporters as government security agents watched. The AP did not identify the woman to protect her.

The woman, 37, said she tried to file a police report but was denied the right to do so at a nearby police station.

At another clash in Cairo, an AP reporter saw a group of mostly women demonstrators being beaten, groped, pressed into a security cordon and verbally harassed by plainclothes state security agents. The AP reporter was grabbed and pulled by the hair.

Outside the capital, some 30 political activists in the port city of Ismailiya were arrested as they tried to stage a protest in front of a courthouse, protest organisers in Cairo said. Six members of the outlawed Muslim Brothers group were also arrested at dawn Wednesday in three different regions, police said.

The amendment would change the wording in the constitution to require “presidential elections” rather than the current yes-or-no referendums.

Most controversially, it requires independent candidates to get 250 recommendations from elected members of parliament and local councils — all dominated by Mubarak’s NDP — before being allowed to run.

A senior ruling party member told the pan-Arab Jazeera television that turnout was more than expected. “The call for the opposition to boycott achieved the opposite results,” Mohammed Ragab told the station.

One first-time voter, Ihab Moushir, 36, said the vote had given him hope.

“There is a possibility that there will be something new.

All people want something new, not only me,” he said.

But another, government worker Ahmed Hussein Mohammed, said he had voted simply because colleagues had told him he would face fines if he didn’t.

“I voted to avoid any government penalty,” said Mohammed, who lives in the town of Sohag, 390 kilometres south of Cairo.

One voter who cast a “no” against the amendment, 29-year-old art instructor Noha Sayed Ahl, said it would lead to no true multi-candidate system.

“It doesn’t make any sense for me allowing it to revert to the old system again,” she said.

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