Egypt’s Vote: Flawed, but Promising

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Iman Badawi trudged up two flights of stairs inside the ramshackle Helwan School for Girls, looking for the classroom that had been turned into a polling station. The 42-year-old former teacher said she was certain that President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party would rig the vote as it had done in past elections. Nonetheless, she took her 10-year-old daughter by the hand, entered the room and cast her ballot for opposition candidate Ayman Nour. “I brought my daughter to show her the importance of participating,” Badawi said outside the school in Helwan, an industrial city on the Nile River 15 miles south of Cairo. “And,” Badawi added, “to show her the importance of objecting.”

The returns from Wednesday’s election indicate that Mubarak won hands-down, but the importance of the country’s first-ever multiparty presidential vote was that after decades of authoritarian rule, Egyptians were actually offered a choice of contenders for the top office. (Mubarak’s four previous six-year terms were affirmed by referendum rather than in competitive elections.) Although the turnout was low, many like Badawi sought to make full use of the newly sanctioned right to cast ballots for an opposition candidate. Instead of receiving the 99% or so approval he routinely received in the referendums on his presidency, Mubarak was expected to receive between 70-80%. The air of freedom swept up the pro-Mubarak magazine Rose el Youssef, which rejoiced, in language borrowed from anti-regime protesters: “Egypt without pharaohs — power to the people!”

Still, the irregularities steadily reported throughout the day — from ballot stuffing to vote buying to intimidation inside polling stations — cast a pall over Mubarak’s majority. Repeated cries of foul play raised questions about whether the crucial elections for Egypt’s 454-seat parliament, due to be held in the next two months, would be an honest contest. After most of its monitors were barred from observing Wednesday’s post-election vote count, Egypt’s Independent Committee for Election Monitoring (ICEM) declared: “No election can be called free, fair and transparent if voters have been denied the right to monitor and scrutinize the process by which their vote is being allocated.”

Mubarak’s Minister of Information, Anas al-Fiqi, acknowledged problems but stressed, “We have to agree that we are seeing an experience that we can build on.” Many Egyptians were heartened that the balloting was relatively free of violence compared to elections as recently as 2000, when security forces clashed with supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood trying to vote for likeminded candidates running as independents. But independent monitoring groups and officials of Nour’s Al Ghad party sharply criticized the way the election was conducted. “We’ve recorded lots of violations, major violations against the voting process, against the voters and against the candidates,” ICEM coordinator Sherif Mansour told TIME as the polls closed Wednesday evening. While stopping short of claiming that he was deprived of victory, Nour announced that his party would file a petition to the Presidential Election Commission and possibly later to the courts to overturn the election due to irregularities.

A preliminary ICEM report said that organizers for Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) paid some Egyptians between 50 and 100 Egyptian pounds ($8-16) to cast ballots for the president, an accusation of fraud that the ICEM says is backed up by video and audio recordings. The report cited instances in which police directed voters to local offices of Mubarak’s NDP to receive fake voter cards. The report noted instances in which security forces or election officials destroyed ballots marked for opposition candidates, AND issued ballots already marked in favor of Mubarak. Mubarak supporters, the ICEM added, were campaigning for the President outside and even inside polling stations. The ICEM said that NDP organizers intimidated some voters, including government employees who were allowed to believe they could be fired from their jobs if they did not vote for the president.

The ICEM reported numerous other irregularities, such as repeat voting, voting without valid ID, turning away voters saying ballot boxes were full, and ignoring the right of voters to cast their ballots in secrecy.

TIME reporters touring in and around Cairo throughout the election observed mostly orderly voting procedures. “In all fairness, everything went very smoothly today,” said Emadeddin Mohammed Ahmed, an observer for the New Wafd party at the Mohammed Ali secondary school in the Sayeda Zeinab district of Cairo.

TIME staff did, however, also see confusion and intimidation. Despite an eleventh-hour agreement to allow independent Egyptian bodies such as the ICEM to monitor voting, TIME encountered Egyptian monitors who claimed to have been blocked from entering some polling stations. ICEM monitor Suleiman Azahiry, 26, said he feared arrest and was ordered to remain 100 yards from a voting station near the village of Tukh, 15 miles north of Cairo. “They wrote our names down and threatened us,” Azahiri, who acknowledged his opposition to Mubarak’s re-election, told TIME after the incident.

Negad El Borai, a monitor for another coalition called the National Campaign for Monitoring Elections, said he visited at least 10 polling stations in Cairo and witnessed the type of violations that had characterized Egyptian elections in the past. “At some places, I saw (NDP members) give voters 10 pounds ($1.75) with my own eyes,” he told TIME. In Helwan, supporters of two opposition parties said officials at an NDP office gave 20 Egyptian pounds ($3.50) and a fast-food sandwich to young men in exchange for their agreement to go to polling stations and vote for Mubarak.

Mubarak’s supporters maintained a strong presence inside some voting stations, too. TIME reporters saw some, unimpeded by judicial supervisors loitering and peering over the shoulders of voters, who were marking their ballots in full view of others rather than behind a curtain in secret. Others chanted slogans inside a polling station at a Sayeda Zeinab elementary school.

In Shubra Khema, one of Cairo’s largest and poorest districts, a man identifying himself as a Mubarak volunteer followed a TIME reporter out of a polling station at the Omar bin Abdulaziz school to allege in a whisper that fellow NDP election workers and election officials had committed more than 200 instances of vote fraud. The man, who asked that his name not be used because he feared being arrested in retribution, claimed that party workers provided Mubarak with the names and registration numbers of other registered voters, and election officials then allowed the imposters to vote using the false names without producing an identity card. TIME could not corroborate the man’s allegations.

Many also complained about not being able to find their names on lists of registered voters. At the Helwan school for girls, Marwa Helmy, 19, a Cairo University student, explained how she finally got her registration card after two hours of waiting, but that three of her friends failed to get theirs. “It was like they didn’t want people to vote,” she told TIME after casting her ballot for Ayman Nour. Having sampled a taste of democracy, many Egyptians like Helmy are hungering for a lot more.