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Ballot-rigging claims mar Mubarak's win



President Mubarak - the "godfather of democracy", as the Egyptian Gazette unhappily dubbed him this week - expressed his satisfaction at the vote. But in the 10th-floor office of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights yesterday, Negal el-Borai was not so happy. "We have so many cases of electoral violations that we cannot yet count them all," he said. "We've had expulsion of party representatives from polling stations, and ballot boxes so stuffed with papers that the poll had to close at 11am - and when people still insisted on casting a vote, they got beaten up."

According to the humanitarian group's secretary-general, 74 electoral representatives were arrested by the police in Minya province and another 100 in Beni Suef, not to mention more than 600 in Cairo - all picked up after formally submitting their names and addresses to Ministry of Justice officials as polling observers. "The main violation was the expulsion of representatives during the vote - it happened in almost every Cairo constituency," Mr Borai alleged. "It was at this moment of expulsion that cards were filled in with the names of National Democratic Party candidates and stuffed into the boxes." The NDP's chairman is a certain Hosni Mubarak.

With 21 million Egyptians having the right to vote for a 444-seat parliament, it was perhaps inevitable that at least five people would die: two women beaten to death in an election battle in a coastal village, an independent candidate's supporter stabbed by NDP men in Cairo, a man shot dead in a polling-station battle in upper Egypt and another shot by armed police when protesters stoned another station in Biyela.

Hundreds were reported injured. The Independent observed one middle-aged man in a grey galibiya gown, his face covered in bruises, led into the Sayeda police station in central Cairo by a policeman.

What no one doubted, of course, was that Mr Mubarak's NDP would win at least two thirds, perhaps 80 per cent, of the vote. That, after all, is the point of the parliamentary elections - because the President needs two thirds of the parliament to re-elect him every six years. "The weak point in our constitution is the need for the President to have this parliamentary two-thirds majority," Mr Borai said. "For this reason he tries to make sure that he gets 80 per cent of the vote, even if it requires him to rig the elections. This hasn't only happened under Mubarak. It happened under Sadat and has happened since 1952."

The government, needless to say, took a more spirited view of Wednesday's very unique elections. "A victory for democracy," the pro-government daily Al-Goumhouriya trumpeted. Nabil Osman, the head of the government's information service, insisted that Mr Mubarak's NDP didn't need to interfere in the election results "because it is the biggest, most popular party". A few NDP candidates would face run-off elections next Wednesday, he added. Early returns from 187 constituencies - for what they are worth, given the deluge of vote-rigging claims - showed the NDP picking up 72 seats against only five for combined opposition candidates.

Voters complained that in some cases police kept opposition supporters from polling stations, or vanished when NDP men threatened to beat up opponents. On several occasions, NDP men who stood as independents - apparently for fear that the government's reputation would lose rather than gain them seats - were reported to have found themselves victims of vote-rigging. The Muslim Brotherhood, hundreds of whose members were arrested in the week before the election, claimed that they might still win 25 per cent of the votes which - in the words of their spokesman, Mahmoun Hodeibi - "means that we are a big power".

Opposition newspapers made short shrift of the government's claims of a democratic election. "A Black Day for Democracy," was the headline on the front page of the Liberal party's Al Ahrar. In the Nasser City suburb of Cairo, all opposition candidates withdrew from the contest on the grounds that the NDP had filled the ballot-boxes with fraudulent votes; Adel Hussein, the deputy leader of the Labour party - an Islamic rather than a socialist group - lost in the constituency.

In other areas, voters protested that women were allowed to vote without producing their identity cards - allowing them to cast votes at other polling stations.

Back at the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights, Mr Borai received a phone call in the early afternoon yesterday from a senior officer in the State Security Police. Didn't he think the election had been both free and fair, the secretary-general was asked? Deluged by phone calls from his election observers, all announcing irregularities at the polling stations, Mr Borai demurred. "I'll be writing a report about it and submitting my report to the government," he said diplomatically. Whether he thought the government would read it was another matter.