CAIRO (AP) â€” Egyptian voters had a choice for president for the first time Wednesday in an election the United States hopes is a key step towards democracy across the Middle East. But the ballot was marred by charges of fraud and the near-certainty that President Hosni Mubarak will win another six years in office.
Ordinary citizens, opposition party members and human rights monitors told the Associated Press that election workers inside polls in Luxor and other towns instructed voters to choose Mubarak. In Cairo and Alexandria, supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party promised food or money to poor people if they voted for the president, voters said.
The leading opposition candidate, Ayman Nour, charged the elections “are not fair at all,” and vowed to reject rigged results. But Osama Attawiya, spokesman for the country’s election commission, said the group had received no major complaints or reports of problems.
A top official in the other major opposition party, Sayed Badawy of the Wafd, said that while fraud and intimidation were apparent: “This is the first time for a president to reach out to the citizens and ask for their support. This is a positive thing.” He and several independent monitoring groups said they expected turnout to be low, despite government predictions of high turnout. The number of voters might indicate whether recent calls for reform have shaken ordinary Egyptians out of an apathy generated by years of stagnation.
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the US was following the election closely and called the vote “a beginning.” “These elections really mark a historic departure for Egypt, in the fact that you have multi-candidate presidential elections. I think it’s safe to say that Egyptians have not seen a presidential election like the one they have just seen in their lifetimes,” he told reporters.
In one clear sign of the changes sweeping Egypt, more than 3,000 people marched through downtown Cairo at mid-afternoon to protest against Mubarak â€” by far the largest crowd ever drawn by the group Kifaya, or “Enough” in Arabic. Police watched from a distance, despite government vows that protests would not be allowed. Two protesters were beaten by government supporters.
Until now, the 77-year-old Mubarak has been reelected in referendums in which he was the only candidate and voters could only chose “yes” or “no” to his continuing in power. Nine candidates ran against him this time, but only two are considered significant: Nour of the Ghad Party and Noaman Gomaa of the Wafd.
Final results were not expected until Saturday.
The government says the decision to allow challengers signals a move toward greater democracy in a country that has seen only authoritarian rule for more than a half-century.
Opponents, however, dismiss the reform claims as a sham, noting that Mubarak’s party controls most of the government, including the election process, and that restrictions make it difficult for opponents to gain ground. The country’s biggest Islamic group, the popular Muslim Brotherhood, is banned entirely.
Many ordinary Egyptians say what they really hope for is change without disruption, crisis or violence, leading to better jobs and more opportunities in the economically ailing country of 72 million people.
Ahmed Muhieddin Baz, a government engineer, said he backed Mubarak because of his “accomplishments, and at the same time, none of the competitors is stronger than him.” Mahmoud Youssry, a Cairo resident, said he wanted to vote for Nour “even if he’s bad. At least we would have broken the barrier of fear.” Accountant Ayman Said Youssef, unsure who in the opposition to support, saw hope for the next elections six years from now: “Now we don’t know the opposition, but we will then.” Despite such optimism, there were widespread charges of voter fraud and intimidation â€” though not the level of violence and flagrant rigging that marred past parliamentary votes.
The country’s oldest human rights group, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, which formed a coalition with other groups to put monitors at polls, said ruling party officials were allowed into some polling stations in Alexandria and forced voters to choose Mubarak.
In Beni Suef, 90 kilometres south of Cairo, NDP officials threatened to cut some people’s monthly pensions if they didn’t vote for the president, the group said.
And in one poor neighbourhood in Cairo, an NDP official gave women 50 pounds ($8.60) each to vote for Mubarak, the group said.
In the southern town of Luxor, 500 kilometres from Cairo, university student Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Ali said a poll worker told him he couldn’t vote unless he had an NDP-issued voting card. When he insisted on voting, “he told me that I must vote for Mubarak or no one else,” Ali said.
Two women told an AP reporter in the northern city of Alexandria that an NDP official brought them to the polls in a bus and gave them voter cards, though neither had ever registered. One of them, Amnah Mohammed, said she voted for Mubarak, then rushed off to get the cooking oil and sugar she said were promised to her for voting.
At another station in Luxor, a Wafd Party observer Shaaban Haridi Bakr said poll workers â€” not voters â€” were checking off the ballots.
Attawiya said there were “some mistakes from employees” and that one poll worker checking ballots was removed.
Judges were supposed to independently monitor the voting, but critics contend that many of them are low-level officials and thus vulnerable to pressure by the ruling party.
Past parliamentary elections have been marred by widespread reports of vote rigging. In a May 25 referendum that set up Wednesday’s vote, the official turnout was 54 per cent, but judges who supervised the polling stations said the turnout did not exceed 3 per cent.