Police in Egypt shot and killed a man outside a polling station Thursday during the final stage of a parliamentary election that has been marred by violence. Riot police sealed off polling stations in many parts of the country, especially in strongholds of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The group calls the crackdown an attempt to stop its gains at the polls after unprecedented success in the first two stages of voting. VOA Correspondent Challiss watched the voting in the town of Zagazig and has this report.
Would-be-voters bang on the gate outside a polling station in central Zagazig, demanding to be let in. It is midmorning, and the voting center has been suddenly closed, with some voters still inside. It reopens after about half an hour, but later in the day it is cordoned off by riot police, who prevent many voters from getting in.
This area is a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, and many of the women waiting to cast their ballots say they were planning to vote for the Brotherhood candidate. They believe authorities are trying to keep them from doing that.
The Brotherhood is technically illegal, so its candidates run as independents. In the first two rounds of voting, they have already won 76 seats in parliament, more than five times the number they previously held. The group's success came despite widespread arrests of Brotherhood supporters and violence outside polling stations in the second round.
As the final stage began Thursday in Zagazig, before the riot police arrived, several women and men start shoving each other in what looked at first like scuffle.
As it goes on, it becomes clear that these people are not really fighting each other. They are putting on a show in front of television cameras, pretending to be angry supporters of opposing candidates. But it is not very convincing. One woman can hardly stop laughing as she smacks another woman on the head. She is carrying a small child in one arm and giggling as she pushes and shoves in the crowd.
One would-be voter says none of the troublemakers are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. "These are not part of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are thugs who are being paid to disrupt things," she said.
Some observers believe the violence was being staged to give police an excuse to seal off the polling station and keep people from voting.
And that is exactly what happens. All three entrances are blocked by rows of riot police bearing helmets, shields and batons. Scores of plainclothes security officers stand outside and inside the polling station, with large, heavy batons sticking out from under their clothes.
Voting slows to a crawl. Police do allow a trickle of voters in, but it is not clear why some people are being stopped and others allowed to pass.
A man named Mahmoud El-Shafie managed to get through the police cordon, pushing his elderly mother in a wheelchair.
"I am bringing my mother in her wheelchair to vote, and when the officer in charge saw me, I think he was too ashamed to block me from entering. But they are blocking other people," he said.
There was some real violence, both here and elsewhere. Police shot and killed a man in the town of Kafr el-Sheikh. Here in Zagazig, a number of voters say they were attacked by thugs, who hit them with rocks and batons.
Medical professor and Brotherhood supporter Hanan Amin Abdelrahman had red marks on her clothes from the rocks that struck her. She said the police stood by and watched. "No! The thugs! The police was standing watching them hitting us. They never protected [us] because they wanted this scenario to occur, no people can enter into the station... They are preventing people from entering to vote. This is the (goal) of the police. This is the target of the police, to let them (hit) us, and to prevent us from entering in here to vote."
Police at the polling station refused to talk to reporters about anything. The interior ministry has blamed the Brotherhood's supporters for the violence that disrupted both the second and third rounds of voting.
Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy flatly denies that the Brotherhood is responsible for any unrest. "That's not true, of course. It's to our benefit to have things calm and quiet, so our followers can go inside. You know, we have a good number of followers -- a majority. They can go inside and vote, so it's to our benefit to have things quiet and without such acts or accidents. But it's very clear that the security forces and the interior ministry are trying to prevent the voters from going to the stations to vote, which is very bad," he said.
Mr. Morsy was elected to parliament in this district five years ago and believes he should win re-election if his supporters are allowed to get to the polls.
The results of Thursday's voting are expected within a day or two, but it is likely that runoffs will be needed in many districts where no candidate wins more than half the votes. In the two previous stages, very few races were settled in the first round of voting. The runoff day is scheduled for Wednesday.