Egyptians took part in parliamentary elections that many feel will bring little change to a country dominated by the National Democratic Party for the past three decades. But accusations of voting irregularities and reports of violence have raised additional concerns, as the vote is widely considered a dry-run for next year's presidential election.
Judging just by the noise level, the ruling National Democratic Party appears confident of a strong showing.
In interview after interview with voters trying to explain their support for the opposition, NDP supporters gathered around, their chanting drowning out the words of others.
But noise is just one factor. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamic organization, which can run candidates as independents, said that one of the group's candidates in Alexandria was attacked.
The Brotherhood member, known to VOA, but who preferred not to use his name, said the candidate was beaten by a group of men he described as "NDP" thugs. There has been no official word on his condition or whether his attackers have been caught. There was no immediate response from the NDP to the allegations.
Other scattered violence, some said to be by security toward opposition groups, has been reported across the country.
The opposition appears to be facing some disadvantages on a more purely technical level, for example, election monitoring. The government promised all contestants and their representatives they could observe the voting process. The government promised a free and fair election.
Reda Shaban is a representative of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood running as an independent candidate. Speaking at polling station in Helwan, just south of Cairo, Shaban said he found himself confronted by security guards, who said he needed additional approval from the local police. He said the police turned down his request, while NDP representatives were given the proper paperwork.
Photos by VOA's Elizabeth Arrott
Likewise the media, which had been touted by the government as guarantors of a fair election - and an argument against international monitors, found their access limited. Despite proper accreditation, this reporter was barred from filming inside a polling station, and instructed to "monitor with your eyes."
Voting at one station mid-day was light, with only nine ballots seen through the glass voting box. Later, in another district, the count was less clear, as the glass had been covered with an opaque plastic coating. A woman who quietly introduced herself as an independent monitor said she had seen 15 votes cast since the polls had opened, in a district where some 1,000 people are registered to vote.
Authorities say official voter turnout will be released Tuesday, one day after the winners are announced.
Tarek Zaghloul, director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, believes these are only the start of the problems. Zaghloul said the most violated persons are the voters themselves. The voter who goes to cast his vote confronts many violations, he says, including being told the officially guaranteed national identification card was, as of voting day, no longer proof enough to vote. He said others simply couldn't find their names on the voting rolls at all.
Hala Mustafa, editor of the magazine Democracy, says years of these procedures have taken their toll. "Most of the people lost interest in the elections as a tool for change, for political change. And, also, I cannot eliminate the factor of the middle class in Egypt. And, I think this class, which gave a kind of political vitality to the society, has been deteriorating for the last two or three decades, and I think this affects negatively the political participation," he said.
She says it is easier to "recruit and mobilize" people in the rural areas. But that, she says, is beside the point. "I think the only importance of the parliamentary elections this year is for the ruling party to have the overwhelming majority in order to prepare for the presidential elections the next year. So, this is all I think the whole elections is all about," she said.
Few doubt that the National Democratic Party will hold on to its dominant position again this year. But next year could possibly be another story.
No candidate has officially declared candidacy for president. Current President Hosni Mubarak, in power for nearly 30 years, has not ruled out another run, but he is 82 and has suffered health problems this year.
His son, Gamal Mubarak, a prominent figure in the NDP, is widely seen as being groomed as an eventual replacement. Given that Gamal is not running for parliament, the number of banners around town these days promoting his political future have only helped that speculation grow.
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