Egypt’s Elections Turn Violent; 1 Killed

1123.jpgCAIRO, Egypt — Lines of police barred opposition voters from some polling stations Monday, and violence erupted between supporters of rival candidates, killing one person and marring the elections for Egypt’s upper house of parliament.The balloting was the latest showdown between the entrenched ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition group, which has been the subject of a fierce government crackdown in recent months.

More than 400 Brotherhood members were arrested, police said. The group accused the government of barring many more from polling stations and rigging the vote. The government denied the allegations.

“We want to vote!” a crowd of supporters of an independent candidate chanted outside a polling station in Giza in front of black-uniformed riot police who blocked the entrance. Police officers at the site said the supporters were not registered to vote, although dozens waved what appeared to be proper official voting cards.

“If I had heavy makeup and miniskirt on, they would have allowed me to vote with pleasure,” said Safaa Hegazy, a veiled woman, who was prevented by police from entering another station in Giza. “They are punishing me because I want to vote for the Brotherhood.”

It was the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood was contesting elections for the Shura Council. Its participation was largely symbolic _ only 19 Brotherhood candidates were running in the races for 88 seats _ but it aimed to show that the Islamic fundamentalist group remains a force despite an increasing government campaign to drive it out of Egypt’s politics.

The Muslim Brotherhood stunned the government by scoring large victories in 2005 elections for parliament’s lower house, winning more than a fifth of the body’s seats to become the largest opposition bloc. Since then, security forces have arrested hundreds of its members, and several of its leaders are on trial in a military court.

The government of President Hosni Mubarak also passed constitutional changes earlier this year aimed at preventing the Brotherhood from becoming a political party _ banning parties based on religion. The Brotherhood has been banned since 1954 but continues to operate with its lawmakers running as independents.

Mubarak, a top U.S. ally, has said his government is bringing greater democracy to Egypt, but critics say the changes he has carried out have only strengthened the grip on power by his ruling National Democratic Party.

Safwat el-Sherif, the speaker of the Shura Council, said the election would be “free and transparent.”

“We respect the constitution and the laws and we don’t allow any violations in this process,” he told state TV.

But the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said in a statement before polls closed that its observers witnessed attacks on opposition supporters, voters banned from polls, and instances of vote-buying.

Violence erupted between supporters of the ruling party candidate and his independent rival in the Nile Delta town of al-Husseiniya. Ahmed Abdel Salam Ghanim, a supporter of the independent, was killed in the exchange of gunfire, police said.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry accused Muslim Brotherhood supporters of storming a polling station in Giza, near Cairo, trying to stuff boxes with ballots marked with the name of Mohammed el-Fiqi, the group’s candidate. Brig. Tareq Attia said some 30 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were detained.

At the Manshiyat al-Qanater polling station in Giza, where Brotherhood candidate Sayed Saleh was competing for a seat, police barred voters from entering for two hours after the polls officially opened. Still, when a few voters were let in, including an Associated Press reporter, the glass ballot boxes inside were already half full.

At other stations visited by the AP, voters complained police were only letting in those who had voting cards issued by the ruling party.

“They want us to vote for the NDP. We don’t want them, they don’t serve us, we don’t even see or know them. This is unacceptable oppression,” said one voter, who would only give his first name, Ayman, fearing arrest by nearby police.

Results were expected Tuesday. Previous Shura Council elections have seen low turnout, a reflection of widespread apathy toward the 264-seat consultative body, which was given limited legislative powers in the recent constitutional amendments.

Only 176 members of the Shura Council are directly elected for six-year terms, with half of those seats coming up for election every three years. The president appoints the remaining 88 members.

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