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Local Groups to Monitor Egyptian Election for First Time


Egyptians start voting Wednesday in a parliamentary election seen as a test of the country's democratic reforms. For the first time, local civic groups will be allowed to monitor the voting from inside polling stations. The groups have been holding a series of training sessions to get their members ready for the job.

In a downtown Cairo office, a group of human-rights workers are training volunteers to monitor Wednesday's vote.

It is the first time local civic groups are being allowed to monitor an Egyptian election from inside the polling stations. They have been asking for that permission for years, and so thousands of volunteers have been through similar training programs. But this time, it is for real.

International observers are still not allowed, although at least one U.S. democracy-building group will have a small delegation here, more to support the local monitors than to actually observe the election.

Fawzy Ahmed Hathoot of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has trained many of the monitors.

He says, "The real role of the monitors is to observe the electoral operations from A to Z, to see if there are violations by any of the parties or candidates." He adds, "Observation is based on seeing and hearing. Interfering in the electoral process is strictly forbidden."

The trainers repeatedly make that point during the session. They stress that the volunteers must not do anything that could justify kicking them out of the polling stations, which would leave the electoral officials unmonitored.

This election is different than the past in a number of ways, in addition to the monitors. Most of the opposition parties have united into a single coalition. And the outlawed, but popular, Muslim Brotherhood is backing scores of independent candidates, operating more openly than it has in the past.

Taxicabs have been circling the streets of Cairo at night, plastered with candidates' posters and blaring campaign slogans.

Campaigning has been intense in many areas, especially where the race is close. Some candidates from a variety of parties are reporting intimidation and threats from their rivals.

Politics is serious business in Egypt. Having the right political connections can be very lucrative, and a growing number of the members of parliament are millionaires.

But many Egyptians are disillusioned with politics, and historically few have bothered to register or vote. In September's presidential election, turnout was only about 23-percent, even though there was more than one candidate on the ballot for the first time in history.

Factory worker Ahmed Ali does not mince words.

He says, "I have never voted and will never vote as long as the process is the same. I do not want to. The only people who vote do it because the candidates pay them in return for their votes."

Mr. Ali describes the elections using a quirky Egyptian expression. He says it will all be Koosa, or zucchini, meaning the results are cooked, or pre-determined.

But not everyone is quite that cynical. An elderly retired general named Suleiman Abdallah says he wants his voice to be heard on Election Day.

He says he will vote "so I can feel like a human being, living in Egypt. I would not feel human if I did not vote. Only people can vote. Animals do not vote."

General Abdallah says he will be voting for one of the opposition candidates, but he still believes that the ruling National Democratic Party, the NDP, will retain control of parliament.

He says, "It will make no difference because they control the country. The NDP dominates the country from A to Z. All the institutions, even the church is controlled by the party. The mosque is controlled by the party. They control everything. Jobs are in their hands. They control who becomes rich and who becomes poor."

One of the ruling party's leading reformers acknowledges that Egyptians have had little reason to put faith in their electoral system. But NDP lawmaker Hossam Badrawi insists that things are changing.

"Some people say nothing can happen in this country," he says. "Some people are negative, which is expected. But again part of leadership is to change the attitude of people, not just to accept the negative attitude. Because we cannot blame them for that."

There are 444 seats up for grabs in the election. Voting takes place in three stages during the next several weeks. Polling is Wednesday in Cairo and Giza, as well as six other regions. Other parts of the country will vote on November 20 and December 1.

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