- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

CAIRO — Egyptians went to the polls yesterday in a presidential contest marred by irregularities and intimidation, but that nevertheless was hailed by many observers as a significant step toward democracy.

Egypt’s electoral commission yesterday morning reversed itself after a court wrangle with nongovernmental groups and said independent monitors could attend the polls to guard against vote rigging.

The commission expressed satisfaction with the conduct of the polls, in which President Hosni Mubarak was heavily favored to win a fifth six-year term against nine other candidates, most of them from minor parties.

There is a “very high turnout from the people, and it is a natural and very good phenomenon for the first presidential elections,” said Osama Attawiya, head of the commission.

Final results are not expected before tonight at the earliest and could take until the weekend, officials said.

The leading opposition candidate in the race, Ayman Nour, said last night that independent exit polls indicated he had won at least 35 percent of the vote and that he hoped official figures would reflect that.

“We accept only the results of free and fair elections, and we won’t accept results of rigged elections,” Mr. Nour said.

“We have seen examples of forgery. … We hold the [ruling party] responsible in front of God for forging the elections.”

About 3,000 militants from the Kifaya (Enough) movement, chanting, “Mubarak, no, no, no,” and “24 years is enough,” disrupted traffic in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, urging Egyptians to boycott the election.

This was Egypt’s first multiparty contest for head of state, but opposition groups and critics say it was fixed by authorities to ensure that Mr. Mubarak remains in office.

Military police with truncheons drawn at first allowed the Tahrir protest to snake into surrounding streets.

About 2 p.m., however, plainclothes policemen wielding batons attacked the protesters, injuring six of them, none seriously, opposition sources said.

“We say that this is a false election,” said George Ishak, a veteran Kifaya leader.

Voting station entrances across Cairo were decked with massive pictures of Mr. Mubarak. Burly members of his ruling National Democratic Party, wearing Mubarak badges, hovered, taking ballot cards from officials and handing them to voters, exhorting them to “do their duty” for the 77-year-old.

Female NDP supporters sang chants extolling the virtues of Mr. Mubarak at a voting station in a girls secondary school in the Adeen district of the capital.

The Ibn Khaldoun Center, an independent election-monitoring committee, said police beat four of its monitors in Assut, while eight were arrested in Alexandria, Sohag and Kafr el Sheik.

Mohammed Zarei, from the National Campaign for Monitoring Elections, said people were bused en masse to vote for Mr. Mubarak in some areas of Alexandria. Many polling stations opened late or lacked the phosphorescent ink for voters to mark their fingers after casting ballots to prevent fraud.

One Western diplomat said Mr. Mubarak would be credited with three-quarters of the votes cast while Mr. Nour “would be happy” if his official tally is registered in double figures.

“This was a very positive step,” the diplomat said. “There has been a real debate, and state broadcasting for the first time has gone out of the way to be even-handed, even though everyone knew Mubarak is going to win.”

Some young, middle-class Egyptians openly acknowledged voting for Mr. Mubarak’s rivals.

“I voted for Ayman Nour, not because I am 100 percent convinced, but because I felt that the election was a farce and that he was the only one not playing a role,” said Yusuf Al Arabi, 31, a journalist.

Many civil servants such as Karina Mustafa, 51, supported the incumbent. “I voted for Hosni because he has experience, he used to be a pilot and did a lot of things. We know nothing about the other ones,” she said.

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