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Egypt's Landmark Election Sometimes Chaotic


Voters have gone to the polls in Egypt for the first competitive presidential election. Early in the day, turnout at the polls was light amid calls by prominent anti-government groups to boycott the balloting. Longtime president Hosni Mubarak is expected to easily win re-election over his nine opponents.

A truckload of young men drive through the streets of Cairo with a poster of President Hosni Mubarak and a loudspeaker, exhorting voters to go to the polls and re-elect the president.

In every other election during his 24 years in power, Mr. Mubarak's name has been the only one on the ballot. This time, it is one of 10. The president is campaigning hard, even though almost everyone believes he will win re-election by a wide margin, at least in part due to Egypt's elaborate system of patronage.

Outside a polling station, a group of young women are taking names and phone numbers of people who promise to vote for Mr. Mubarak. According to the leaflets they hand out, it appears that anyone who votes for the president is eligible to win a trip to Mecca, a personal computer, or "other valuable prizes."

Most of the women are not willing to discuss what they are doing, but one offers a little information about the sponsor of this "contest."

She says, "He is a businessman who is running for parliament, and he really supports Mr. Mubarak, so he sent us out here to help campaign for him."

This is the district where opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour won a parliamentary seat in the last election, and Mr. Mubarak appears to have devoted vast resources to making sure that Mr. Nour does not win here again. Inside the polling station earlier in the day, scuffles briefly erupted between the two men's supporters.

In a crowded marketplace a few blocks away, a man named Ahmed says he voted for Ayman Nour, but he doubts it will make much difference.

He says, "Ayman Nour will not win this district, because if you walk up the street, you will find people giving away 50 [Egyptian] pounds and a t-shirt if you vote for Mubarak."

But many voters seemed genuine in their support for the longtime leader.

This man says, "There is nobody but Hosni Mubarak. He is a very good person. There may be nine other candidates, and he is the 10th, but there is nobody but him. He has served this country for a long time."

Visits to about 10 polling stations around the capital showed a fair amount of inconsistency in how the election was run, and reports from around the country indicated the same. Things went smoothly in some places, but there was considerable chaos and confusion in others, as well as at least one incident of outright fraud.

In a village about 100 kilometers south of Cairo, a reporter from the Boston Globe newspaper and an independent election monitor witnessed officials from the ruling National Democratic Party forging voter registration cards outside a polling station.

Overall, voters' experiences seemed to depend on where they voted, or where they tried to vote.

Almost everywhere, people were flipping through page after page of voter registration lists, looking for their names. According to the rules, someone with a voter registration card could vote anywhere in the country, but those without cards had to vote in the polling stations where they were registered. A great many people seemed unable to figure out where that was. Many reported visiting numerous polling stations without finding their names, and one opposition poll monitor said 75 percent of the people who came to vote at his station had been turned away.

And according to some reports, people who had verified their names on the lists a few days earlier arrived at the polls Wednesday to find that they were no longer there.

The situation turned chaotic at one center when the supervising officer turned several women away from the poll. One woman waved her pink voter registration card as she argued with the presiding officer, who grew so agitated that he called in the police. Even with her card in hand, she had been turned away from several polling stations, and it appeared that it was about to happen again.

"My name is not recorded here,” she said. “I want to elect somebody. My name is not here, although I have this. And without this you cannot elect. So I have it, and my name is not recorded. Ok? I don't know where is my name, and if they will let me elect anybody. I don't know. I'm a professor at the university, and this is not correct. I've been looking for a place to elect since one hour now. And I have been moving from one place to the other until I came here. Now I cannot elect."

Although the station supervisor had been telling her that she would not be allowed to vote despite having the proper card, he changed his mind after two journalists showed up. She emerged from the voting booth a few moments later with red ink on her finger. She whispered that she doubted she would have been allowed to vote if the reporters had not shown up when they did.

It is not clear how long it will take to count the ballots from nearly 10,000 polling stations nationwide. By law, election officials must announce the results within three days.

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