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Egypt Readies for Election Amid Concerns About Fairness, Apathy


Egyptians go to the polls Wednesday to cast presidential ballots that, for the first time in history, have more than one candidate's name on them. Human rights groups wanted to monitor the voting, but the electoral commission is refusing to let them despite a court order, so they are skeptical about whether the election will be fair. And many voters seem apathetic about the poll.

A coalition of more than 20 civic groups took the electoral commission to court in an effort to be allowed to monitor the voting from inside some of the 9,000 polling stations.

Last week, a court ordered the commission to grant the independent monitors access, but the head of the commission said he would not honor the ruling, and the prime minister said the court had no authority over the commission.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has trained scores of monitors and says they will observe the election no matter what. If they are not allowed inside to witness the voting, they will watch from outside the polling stations and collect information from voters and party agents.

The group's monitoring coordinator, Mohammed El-Sawi, says if the election is fair, officials will have nothing to hide, so it would be in their interest to let independent monitors watch.

"I think they had a great chance to show everyone, yes, there is a new democratic life in Egypt," said Mr. El-Sawi. "But I think they are just destroying it. And we will find out tomorrow if it's fair or not. I don't want to just give a judgment without any proof."

Election campaigning wrapped up a few days before the poll. Opposition candidates have complained that the three-week period allowed for campaigning was not long enough.

At President Hosni Mubarak's final campaign rally on Sunday, zealous supporters chanted, "With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you, oh Mubarak," as they madly waved green posters with the president's photo.

Across town the night before, opposition Tomorrow Party candidate Ayman Nour closed his campaign with a rally in front of the Mugammaa government building, a massive administrative center that, to many Egyptians, symbolizes Egypt's notorious bureaucracy.

Mr. Nour and another candidate, Noaman Gomaa, are the only ones on the ballot who are thought to have much of a chance of unseating the president.

Mr. Nour, 40, is a lawyer who is considered a relative newcomer to Egyptian politics, despite having been a member of parliament. He is trying to appeal to a younger generation of voters.

Mr. Gomaa is a more veteran politician who represents the Wafd Party, which lead Egypt's struggle for independence from Britain, but has lost much of its political influence in the decades since then.

A key question now is how many voters will actually go to the polls Wednesday. Voter turnout in previous Egyptian elections has been extremely light, sometimes even below 10 percent. Most analysts predict this election will not be any different despite the number of candidates on the ballot.

The pro-democracy movement known as Kifaya, or "enough," has staged large anti-Mubarak street protests this year and Kifaya leaders are urging their supporters to boycott the election, which they consider a farce. Ahmed Salah heads a Kifaya-linked group called Youth for Change. He admits that apathy is widespread.

"Most Egyptian people, they have absolutely no faith in any possibility," he explained. "They are so sick of the situation that is going on. They think it will go on forever. There is no hope to change anything, and they are very negative about taking part in anything."

Election officials have until Saturday to announce the results. If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election next week, between the two who get the most votes. But analysts doubt it will be necessary. President Mubarak is expected to win by a wide margin.

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