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US Troubled by Reported Egyptian Election Irregularities

The U.S. State Department Wednesday described as troubling reports of voter intimidation and other irregularities in voting earlier this week for the upper house of the Egyptian parliament, the Shura Council. U.S. pressure on Egypt on political reform has been an irritant in relations. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here say the reports of ballot-box stuffing and other abuses in the voting are of deep concern, and that Egypt as a regional leader should be setting an example for the Arab world in political reform.

Egyptians went to the polls Monday in the first round of voting for the Shura Council under constitutional amendments approved in March that give the upper house - previously an advisory body - some limited legislative authority.

The amendments also curbed religious-based political parties and were seen as a move by the Cairo government to limit the influence of the officially-banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose members - running as independents in 2005 - became the biggest bloc in parliament.

News reports Monday said security forces blocked voters from casting ballots in some districts considered Muslim Brotherhood strongholds, and an Egyptian monitoring group alleged ballot-box stuffing and bribery at several other polling stations.

The ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak won 69 of the 88 contested seats Monday, while Muslim Brotherhood candidates got none.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the reported election problems were troubling and that the United States is broadly concerned about the state of political reform in Egypt:

"While the Egyptian government has made some progress in opening up their political system, there have been some troubling incidents, such as have been reportedy regarding the Shura council elections as well as the parliamentary elections," said Sean McCormack. "There have also been concerning elements in the political system that seek to reduce the role of the judiciary as an independent check on the actions of the government within the democratic process and specifically with respect to elections."

U.S. pressure for reform has been an element of friction in bilateral relations. Last week, after President Bush called for the release of jailed Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused Mr. Bush of unacceptable meddling in Egyptian affairs.

Spokesman McCormack said the United States is not using the reform issue as what he termed a hobby horse to punish the Mubarak government, and said while it is a regular subject in high-level meetings, it is not raised by U.S. officials in a disrespectful way:

"We don't talk to them about it in a berating or scolding tone," he said. "We are friends, we are close allies, and we do it in a matter that is respectful. And we also make it quite clear we are not trying to impose a particular set of specific behaviors on Egypt or the Egyptian people. It is a proud culture. It's a proud country with a long history. And they will adapt democratic freedoms, greater freedoms within their economic and political systems in their own way. But it's important that they do continue to make progress.

Secretary of State Condoleezza is due in Egypt for a June 26 meeting of the international Middle East Quartet and Arab League diplomats on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. officials say the reform issue will very likely be a subject in her bilateral talks with Egyptian officials.

On Tuesday, a key U.S. House of Representatives committee voted to hold back $200 million in military aid to Egypt until it improves its human rights record.

The move by the House Appropriations Committee to trim the administration's the $1.3 - billion aid request for Egypt for the next fiscal year must still be considered by the full House and the Senate.

For the full allocation to go forward, Secretary Rice would have to certify that Egypt is making progress on human rights, and on curbing weapons smuggling to Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip.