CAIRO // Relatively few Egyptians showed up yesterday to vote in a parliamentary poll that candidates and observers condemned for a lack of oversight and widespread voter manipulation.
At polling sites across the country, election monitors and opposition supporters said that state security officers denied them their legal mandate to observe the voting process for 508 seats in the People's Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of parliament.
The reports confirmed what many predicted - that the ruling regime would use the poll to reverse 2005 legislative gains by the Muslim Brotherhood.
"The elections are one of the worst in Egypt because of the absence of judiciary supervision, the absence of media, the absence of monitors - domestic or international," said Essam el Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader. "The percentage of voters was very, very short, maybe more reduced numbers of voters in Egypt than any other election."
Election-day violence and stampeding crowds killed at least five people, said Ahmed Fawzy, director of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, an independent election-monitoring organisation.
The government-appointed High Elections Commission said yesterday that it had "invalidated" ballot boxes that had been "attacked and destroyed" by "candidate supporters" at three polling stations in a Nile Delta governorate. The commission also reported stolen ballot papers from seven other polling stations - incidents that led to 43 arrests.
Final results for the poll are not expected until today, according to the High Elections Commission, a nominally independent agency of 11 members appointed by the judiciary and parliament to administer the election. The results of the vote will be critical to next year's presidential election because the parliament plays a major role in the candidate nomination process.
That vote will present Egypt with a potentially destabilising transition amidst speculation that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's 82-year-old president, will run for his final term or anoint an as-yet-unknown successor. Egypt's National Democratic Party (NDP), led by Mr Mubarak, has dominated the political scene for over 30 years, but now faces internal divisions and threats from the Muslim Brotherhood that added urgency to yesterday's vote.
The NDP fielded 832 candidates to compete for 508 seats, marking the first time in Egypt's history that the party presented more than one candidate for each open position, said Amr el Shobaky, a political analyst for Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded think tank.
"For me it means that the NDP has not had success in building a real political party that is able to recruit people who believe in its programme and believe in its political vision," he said in an interview last week.
"That means it's a group of interests. A lot of people join the NDP because it's related to the state ... and gives the chance for its candidates to be deputies in parliament."
Political analysts said ruling party officials hoped to avoid the embarrassment of the 2005 elections, when NDP members who were not nominated by their party ran as independents. After many such independents won, the NDP was forced to spend political capital to entice them back into the party fold.
If the election was meant to strengthen the fractured NDP, it did so at the cost of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, with 88 seats in the 454-member parliament, represents the largest opposition bloc. A new women's quota will expand the parliament to 518 seats starting this year.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood announced in October that it would participate in the elections, the government has arrested more than 1,200 Brotherhood supporters and disqualified 57 of its candidates during the nomination period earlier this month. Abuses continued yesterday, Mr el Erian said.
Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood parliamentarian from Alexandria was hospitalised after being beaten, he said, while Akram Shaer, a parliament member from Port Said, was arrested and released after a few hours.
The organisation's website, www.ikhwanweb.com, was off-line throughout the day, which Mr el Erian blamed on government censors. For independent monitors, the biggest complaint yesterday centred on their lack of access to polling stations to inspect the ballots, Mr Fawzy said.
All "serious civil society" organisations were denied entry he said, while state security allowed government-linked groups to enter. Non-governmental organisations were given a bigger role in overseeing the vote after a 2007 constitutional amendment transferred election-monitoring responsibilities from the historically independent judiciary to the government-appointed High Elections Commission.
Civil society was stifled yesterday, Mr Fawzy said. "We cannot call what happened in Egypt 'elections' because they are elections without equal opportunity and there was no supervision by a neutral committee," he said. "The poverty of the people was taken advantage of ... The lack of judicial supervision was very evident."