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Egyptian Judges Will Oversee Election, But Demand Independence

Egypt's main association of judges has voted not to boycott the presidential election. The judges are supposed to supervise the poll, scheduled for Wednesday*, September 7, but they have complained that they do not have enough independence and authority to do the job properly. A noisy protest in support of the judges earlier Friday shut down the street outside their meeting in central Cairo.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in downtown Cairo, near the building where the judges were meeting to decide what to do about the election.

The roughly 8,000 members of the judges' association are supposed to supervise the balloting and tabulation of results. But several months ago, they threatened not to perform that role, saying the state has not given them enough authority to actually ensure a free and fair poll. They do not want to rubber-stamp (approve) a fraudulent election.

Late Friday, the judges decided to go ahead and oversee the poll. But they are demanding more transparency and independence, and they say, if they do not get it, they will not endorse the election results.

Before and during the meeting, anti-government groups organized several protests in support of the judges' independence. The leader of the Youth For Change movement, Ahmed Salah, said he was hoping the judges would boycott. "We hope that they will take a decision to boycott the elections because of how illegal it is, since it does not take the full supervision of our judges," he said.

He says there are not enough judges to supervise all the ballot boxes individually on election day, which could lead to allegations of fraud. "There is no way to make sure that this election is clean. We are absolutely sure, 100 percent, that it is going to be rigged, the same like all the other elections, the referendum, like everything," he said.

But not all of the protesters wanted a boycott. Some were just there to show support for the judges' independence. One of the leaders of the Kifaya reform movement, Hani Annan, said he thinks even if the election is rigged, it would be better to have the judges supervising so they can call attention to it. "We are here to support them because we know the judges have been subjected to a lot of pressure, a lot of manipulation, a lot of threats, a lot of temptations, whatever. But we believe they're going to come with the right decision. Because I believe that even if the judges would be satisfied with what we think they're going to be calling partial supervision of the election, this is much better than them boycotting the whole thing," he said.

The protest outside the building where the judges were meeting went on for hours, and several scuffles broke out between police and protesters.

Police inundated the area with black-uniformed officers in riot gear, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a cordon six men deep. They outnumbered the chanting protesters six- or seven-to-one, surrounded them and, for a while, refused to let anyone leave. There was a lot of pushing and shoving for a while. Several protesters ended up on the ground and appeared to be severely roughed up by the police. At least one leader of the movement was reported arrested before the police backed off and the demonstration continued, chaotic but peaceful.

*Article corrected 03 September 2005 (originally read Thursday)