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Claims of voting irregularities sweep across Egypt

| Monday, Nov. 29, 2010

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Claims of voting irregularities arose as Egyptians chose a national parliament yesterday, though widely-feared election-day violence did not materialize.

Low voter turnouts were reported in this Mediterranean seaport, the country's second largest city and a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, which wants to rule Egypt under Islamic tenets, is officially banned but its members often run for office as independents. It remains the country's largest, most powerful opposition group.

Turnout was reportedly low elsewhere, too, and foes of President Hosni Mubarak accused his government of blocking voters at the polls.

The ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, is expected to win a landslide when results are released today or Tuesday.

Egypt is the Arab world's most populous nation and America's key Arab ally.

Information Minister Anas El-Fekky reported "no election-related deaths" while some Egyptian media reported as many as eight.

"It is a day without voters and, in that respect, it is not a good day," said Ghada Shahbandar, an Egyptian Organization for Human Rights election monitor.

She estimated that "2 to 3 percent of our voters showed up."

She cited "many irregularities and many violations," including opposition candidates' monitors barred from polls, NDP candidates advertising inside those stations, and police intimidation of voters.

The parliamentary elections were a run-up to next year's presidential race. Many Egyptians wonder if Mubarak, in office since 1981, will run again or step aside in favor of his son, Gamal.

The younger Mubarak has consistently denied any interest in becoming president.

Some analysts predicted before the vote that the government would try to restrict parliamentary opposition gains, or even reduce the seats held by its foes, to limit opposing voices in a presidential election year.

Typical of the voting-fraud complaints voiced by all sides were those arising here between Alexandria's former governor and ruling-party candidate, Abdel Salam Al Mahgoob, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Sobi Saleh.

Outside a polling station in a working-class neighborhood, Al Mahgoob's supporters arrived in busloads to vote. "He is a respected figure and has provided many services in all of Alexandria," said businessman and voter Ahmed El Kirsh.

Yet independent election monitors said police barred them from entering.

Outside, Muslim Brotherhood supporters chanted against the NDP candidate: "You tyrant, may God deal with you!"

"There are no observers except for the NDP. There is no freedom," said a face-veiled Noha Badr, 37, an engineer and Brotherhood supporter. "We are sure the results were already determined yesterday" -- before the vote.

Saleh, the Brotherhood candidate, said he was attacked by "thugs."

Foreign journalists allowed inside another of the city's polling stations found no voters, just a sleeping policeman and NDP observers.

By 2 p.m. at a poll in a crowded Alexandria neighborhood, one ballot box contained just six ballots while another was full.

On Cairo's outskirts, opposition candidate Mona Makram-Ebeid, a Coptic Christian, said many of her observers were not allowed into polling stations. She said voter turnout was high in villages surrounding the capital, however.

"The countryside is different ... it was much better," she said. Voters there "were singing and clapping and telling me not to forget them."

Yet she told of how an "Islamist woman tore down my (campaign) banners. She said, 'Mona comes from America in a parachute.' "

Her conclusion: "It was a very good day ... but you never know what the end result will be."

In downtown Cairo, opposition candidate Gameela Ismail's campaign reported many problems, including a man caught stuffing a ballot box and another caught on camera taking a $40 bribe to vote for an NDP candidate.

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