Thursday, May 26, 2005

CAIRO — Voters overwhelmingly cleared the way for Egypt’s first contested presidential election, according to referendum returns released yesterday. Government opponents dismissed the results.

It was a day of mixed news for President Hosni Mubarak as the White House denounced the beating of protesters during Wednesday’s vote.

“The idea of people expressing themselves in opposition to the government, then getting beaten, is not our view of how a democracy ought to work,” President Bush said. “It’s not the way that you have free elections.”

Six opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had called for a boycott of the referendum, but the Interior Ministry said 54 percent of the 32 million registered voters — about 16.4 million Egyptians — participated. Of that, 83 percent approved the referendum.

“The voting masses have realized that political participation within a framework of constitutional legitimacy is the safe path toward the future,” Interior Minister Habib el-Adly said on state-run television.

A high turnout was important to the government, which has been trying to portray opposition groups as a small, out-of-touch minority of Egyptians.

It wasn’t clear how many voters heeded the call for a boycott. There was no independent, outside monitoring of results or turnout estimates.

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed the results and the referendum, saying: “I’m sad, and so sorry that ridiculing people has reached this level.”

Abdel Halim Qandil, a spokesman of the largely secular reform group Kifaya, Arabic for “Enough,” which also boycotted the referendum, characterized the results as “black humor,” saying all of the returns were fabricated, including some “no” votes created for show.

Mr. Mubarak, who has served for 24 years through unchallenged yes-no referendums, touted his call for multicandidate presidential elections as a major democratic reform.

Critics say it is only an attempt to satisfy U.S.-led international calls for greater democracy in the Middle East and that the constitution’s new rules may allow for weak political challengers but will not loosen the ruling party’s grip on power.

The amended constitution requires independents to get 250 recommendations from elected members of parliament and local councils — all of which are dominated by Mr. Mubarak’s party — before being allowed to enter the presidential race.

The 77-year-old president is widely expected to run again in September.

Mr. Bush, speaking at a Washington press conference with visiting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, noted his past support for Mr. Mubarak’s tentative steps toward democracy.

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