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US: Egypt’s Contested Presidential Vote Historic

The United States said Wednesday that despite faults in the process, Egypt's multi-candidate presidential election was a historic political departure for that country. The State Department called on President Hosni Mubarak, the presumptive winner, to make good on a pledge to lift the long-standing state-of-emergency.

The Bush administration has been pressing for political reform in Egypt as part of its broader campaign for democracy in the Middle East.

It is welcoming the country's first competitive presidential election even while acknowledging heavy-handed tactics by the Mubarak government against political rivals.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that while U.S. officials were still evaluating the conduct of Wednesday's voting, it can already be said that the multi-candidate contest marked a historic departure for Egypt:

"I think it's safe to say that Egyptians have not seen a presidential election like the one they have just seen in their lifetimes,” said Mr. McCormack. “I also think that the political debate that unfolded around these elections, both prior to and during the actual campaign period, is something that will enrich the Egyptian political dialogue for years to come. It is a beginning."

Mr. McCormack, who earlier in the week lamented the lack of international observers for the voting process, also cited campaign reports of harassment of opposition candidates and repression of public protests.

He none-the-less said Egyptians had heard a political dialogue that they previously had not.

He also said that during the campaign President Mubarak had made promises that the United States expects him to follow-through on, including the lifting of the state of emergency that has curtailed political activity in the Arab world's most-populous country for 24 years.

Mr. McCormack said the United States looks forward to the Egyptian government and people building on progress made in the presidential vote as they prepare for parliamentary elections in November.

President Mubarak, who had won mandates four times before in uncontested referenda, faced nine other candidates in Wednesday's election.

The country's largest opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, did not field a presidential candidate but says it will be active in the parliamentary contest.

Its avowed supporters, running as independents in 2000, won 17 seats in a parliament otherwise dominated by Mr. Mubarak's party.

Mr. Mubarak has ruled under state of emergency powers imposed after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

The State Department, in its annual report on human rights worldwide in February, partly blamed emergency restrictions for what it said was a poor overall human rights situation in Egypt.

The report said the emergency law, extended for another three years in 2003, restricted many basic rights, criticizing in particular the use of emergency courts to try political cases.