Egypt says 'yes' to contested elections

By Amil Khan

Cairo - A constitutional amendment introducing the first direct and contested presidential elections in Egypt won 82,9 percent approval in a referendum, Interior Minister Habib el-Adli announced on Thursday.

The turnout in the referendum, which opposition groups had asked Egyptians to boycott, was 53,6 percent of registered voters, the minister told a news conference.

The new system, replacing referendums on a single presidential candidate chosen by a parliament dominated by the ruling party, takes effect in elections in September.

President Hosni Mubarak, 77, who has run the Arab world's most populous nation since 1981, is expected to seek a fifth six-year term but has not yet said whether he will stand.

The opposition says the conditions on presidential candidates are so restrictive that the ruling party would not face a credible challenge.

Opposition officials said the government had exaggerated the turnout in the referendum.

"This rate of attendance is just impossibly high... It seems the number has been multiplied by five," said Gameela Ismail, spokesperson for the opposition Ghad (Tomorrow) Party.

Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which joined the boycott call, said: "I don't believe this number is possible. We know not more than 5 or 10 percent of people went to vote... I have many doubts about this number."

Abdel Halim Qandil, a leading member of the Kefaya (Enough) protest movement, said in a television interview on Wednesday evening that the real turnout was about 4 percent.

Reuters correspondents who visited polling stations during the voting saw no queues and only a trickle of voters.

But in many places government agencies and companies bussed their employees to polling stations to encourage voting.

The newspaper of the opposition Wafd Party said some of its reporters joined a group of ruling party supporters and managed to vote at eight separate polling stations on Wednesday.

The officials did not check their names against the registers, the newspaper said. Other Egyptians said they could not vote because their names were not on the lists.

Egyptian judges who have supervised previous elections told a public meeting this month that electoral fraud was common.

The referendum was also marred by attacks by supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) on Kefaya members who demonstrated in favour of a boycott.

Riot police stood by as Mubarak's supporters kicked and punched a small group of people from Kefaya, an alliance of liberals, leftists and Islamists dedicated to getting Mubarak out of office and prevent his son Gamal replacing him. The men groped women and ripped their clothes.

US President George Bush on Thursday criticised the attacks, saying it was "not the way that you have free elections".

"The idea of people expressing themselves in opposition to government and then getting beaten is not our view of how a democracy ought to work," Bush told a news conference.

US First Lady Laura Bush infuriated the opposition this week by endorsing the constitutional changes and saying that political change in Egypt had to happen slowly.

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan on Thursday repeated a US call for free and fair elections, with freedom of assembly for opposition parties and international monitors.

Egyptian officials have been hostile to the idea of monitors, but the government has not taken a formal stance.

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