Voter-fraud claims mar Egypt's first presidential poll contest
EGYPTIANS voted yesterday in the country's first contested presidential election, but charges of voter fraud and a boycott rally marred a ballot that the long-time president, Hosni Mubarak, argues is a major democratic reform.
More than 3,000 people marched through Cairo's streets - by far the largest crowd ever drawn by the opposition group Kifaya, or "Enough", in Arabic. Police watched from a distance, despite government vows the day before that protests would not be allowed.
Amid the fraud charges that arose were accounts from voters and opposition party members that election workers inside polling stations in Luxor were telling voters to choose Mr Mubarak, and that voters in Alexandria were promised food by ruling-party workers if they cast a vote.
Egypt says the decision to allow competitors to run against Mr Mubarak signals a move toward greater democracy in a country that has seen only authoritarian rule for more than half a century.
Opponents, however, dismiss the reform claims as a sham. They note that Mr Mubarak's ruling party controls most of the government, including the electoral process, and they argue that the wide publicity given to the president by state-owned media made it difficult for opposition candidates to gain wide support.
Ahmad Ibrahim al-Shimi, 41, an accountant, was one of many onlookers who joined the Kifaya march that started at noon in Cairo's main square, then swelled and spread to surrounding streets.
"I've never been in a demonstration before, I've never done anything before. But I'm disgusted. I've had enough," he said.
Turnout overall was expected to be low because many Egyptians, deeply alienated from a government they see as accomplishing little, are unused to voting or believe their votes will not make a difference.
Other Egyptians seem genuinely to fear change and said they would freely vote for the candidate they know, Mr Mubarak, long seen as the country's father and protector.
"I can't take a risk at a time like this because this is the destiny of a country," said Mohammed Shahat Bilal, 58, a welder in Alexandria. "We don't want what happened in Iraq to happen here. We want a stable country."
Nine candidates are running against Mr Mubarak, but only two are considered significant, Ayman Nour of the al-Ghad Party and Noaman Gomaa of the Wafd.
Mr Nour, a young, media-savvy candidate whose arrest earlier this year was met by international protests, said he hoped the elections would be "conducted with transparency. And if this happens it will be a big achievement for Egypt".
Mr Gomaa heads the oldest opposition party, which has some power bases in scattered towns.
Mr Mubarak was among the first to vote, casting his ballot in a school close to the presidential palace, accompanied by his wife and son, Gamal, a rising politician.
The country's election commission issued a statement yesterday saying private groups and private observers were welcome to go inside polling stations to observe, despite earlier rulings that only voters, judicial supervisors, election workers and some party representatives could go inside.
Despite that, the fraud charges were many. In Luxor in the south, Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Ali, a university student, said he was shocked when an employee inside a polling station told him he should vote for Mr Mubarak, or no-one. Mr Ali said he refused and insisted on voting by himself. He would not say who he chose.
The election commission said counting could take up to three days and final results would not come until Saturday.
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