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Vote Buying Rife in Egyptian Politics

Vote buying is so widespread in Egyptian elections that many people view it as a normal part of politics. But the practice is also one of the reasons so many people are disillusioned with Egypt's political system and never vote.

Money is changing hands outside a polling station in the Cairo district of Manial. Surrounded by a small crowd, a woman in a black abaya and headscarf is counting bills handed to her by a man in a sweater. As two VOA journalists approach, the money quickly disappears, and everyone falls silent.

Everyone but one young man. He seems oblivious to the fact that one of the journalists is blonde, obviously not Egyptian, and carrying a microphone. Or maybe he is just too brazen to care. In English, he hisses "money, money," and then switches back into Arabic.

He says, "Will you give your vote?" One of his companions smacks him on the back to shut him up.

Vote buying is one of the most frequent complaints of election monitors and opposition parties in Egypt. The practice is so widespread that few people bother to deny that it happens, although almost nobody, of course, will admit to actually doing it.

Many voters see it rather cynically as an integral part of the Egyptian political landscape. But voter confidence in the political system is low, and only about 25 percent of people have bothered to vote in either of this year's elections so far.

This man refused to give his name, but said none of the candidates in his district deserved his vote.

"With all honesty, almost every one if them is giving money," he says. "Isn't Islam their religion? Islam says that whoever gets interest on money is going to hell. Whoever takes a bribe is going to hell too. Let me tell you, in all honesty, none of those people would serve us. I am an honest man." He asks, "Who will serve honest people?"

In this neighborhood of Manial, on an island in the Nile River, one of the complaints about vote-buying seems to be related to how much money one of the candidates is rumored to be willing to cough up - up to 200 Egyptian pounds per vote, or about $35. That is five to 10 times the going rate in other parts of town. Even people who are used to the idea of voting for cash are shocked by how much people seem willing to pay.

Others seem shocked at how cheaply some people are willing to sell their votes. The lowest figure reported is 20 pounds, or less than $4.

Down the street from the polling station the vote-buyers, social worker Islam Abdulaziz waves his hand at the vote buyers in anger, anger directed not at them, but at the system that created them.

"This is the result of the government policies of the last 25 years," he says. "Those people cannot afford anything. They have no money. If they had money, they wouldn't be here."

Although the practice of vote-buying is widespread, and almost everyone seems to do it, people still trade allegations of vote buying in an effort to discredit their political opponents. In a different district, supporters of two wealthy businessmen, both connected to the ruling party, traded allegations on election day.

VOA spoke to a man who said he had been offered money to vote for one candidate, Hisham Mustafa Khalil, the son of a former vice president. Mr. Khalil not only denied that he was buying votes, he denied that anybody does. But then he fired accusations back at his opponent.

"No, no, no, no, no," he said. "It's not a common practice at all. We don't have anyone. And the results will show. If we are offering money the results will show. This is a rumor that they are trying to spread around. OK? But the results will show who was spreading money all over."

When the results came in, Mr. Khalil won. His opponent, the incumbent lawmaker Hossam Badrawi, had lost his seat in parliament.

Unlike his rival, Mr. Badrawi is willing to acknowledge the effect that money has in the political system. He says the politics of personal favors has become ingrained in Egyptian political culture and he says he is not happy about it.

"People are not looking to policies or to reform or to what really can be done institutionally," said Mr. Badrawi. "They are very locally directed to personal favors and personal presents. Which ends up usually by opening up for evaluating votes by money. Which is very, very bad."

Mr. Badrawi thinks the only solution is to move away from a district-based system, where candidates are directly elected, and toward a proportional representation system, where people vote for parties rather than individuals.

He insists that electoral reform is on the ruling party's agenda, but many Egyptians remain skeptical that their political system will ever be truly representative, because the only people who can change the system are the ones who benefit from it the way it is.