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Accusations fly in second round of Egypt vote

Nasser Nasser / AP

Reporters flank Egyptian reform leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei while leaving a polling station after voting, in Giza, Egypt, Thursday.

CAIRO -- Islamists and liberals accused election officials Thursday of filling out ballot forms for elderly or confused voters at some polling stations during the second round of parliamentary elections. If confirmed as a pattern, the reports could chip away at the credibility of what has so far been the freest and fairest vote in Egypt's modern history.

Under Hosni Mubarak's 30-year regime, elections were systemically rigged and the corruption was a major impetus behind the popular uprising that ousted the authoritarian leader in February. But as the polls closed, it was still unclear how widespread the problems were.

The head of the election commission, Abdel-Moez Ibrahim, described the allegations of wrongdoing as "a strong wave of rumors which aimed at driving wedge between the judges and the people." He said he investigated some incidents and found out that judges overseeing the voting were helping disabled, illiterate voters. But because of the accusations, judges now tell voters asking for help that this is not their role.

"If people lose confidence in their judges, this will lead to a state collapse," he said.

The second round of voting in nine of the country's 27 provinces covered vast rural areas where the two Islamist blocs that dominated in the first round look poised to cement and probably even bolster their already overwhelming majority. In many of the races in this stage, the two Islamist alliances contested head-to-head.

These elections are the first litmus test of the strength of political forces that have emerged in the 10 months since the uprising. The political forces are roughly divided into two camps — the Islamists on one side and on the other, secular and liberal groups that largely drove the uprising but failed to turn their achievement into a victory at the polls.

However, the crux of power in Egypt remains in the hands of the ruling military council that took power from Mubarak. It is the executive and ultimate authority on all matters of state in absence of a president.

The most immediate and urgent concern for the liberal and secular groups is the drafting of the country's new constitution. The new parliament will be in charge of picking the 100-member constituent assembly to draft the constitution and many fear an Islamist-dominated parliament may lead to a document guided by strict religious principles.

Casting his vote for the first time in his life, 68-year-old reform leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei responded to fears of a parliament dominated by Islamists by saying that a new constitution might also mean new elections.

"This is the first step to democracy," he said. Commenting on alleged violations, he said: "This is nothing compared to before."

Many Egyptians are voting for the first time in their lives, having shunned the rigged votes of the past decades knowing it was not a true democracy.

"I'm 61 years old and I've never voted before. I came here today as I couldn't vote yesterday because of the crowds," said Azza Mohamed at a busy Cairo polling station.

"Everyone who votes today knows their vote won't be lost," she said, on the second day of the second round of a complicated multi-phase election that will last into January.

The two leading Islamist alliances — the front-running Muslim Brotherhood and second-place Al-Nour representing ultraconservative Salafi Muslims — won close to 70 percent of seats in the first round on Nov. 28-29, according to an AP tally compiled from official results.

This round and a third and final vote in January are expected to solidify those gains because they are concentrated in rural areas that are traditionally more conservative. Many of those areas turned into Islamist strongholds now that the former ruling party has been dissolved.

The biggest surprise of the first round of voting was the strength of the Salafis, with their Al-Nour alliance winning a fifth of all seats contested. The Salafis want to strictly impose Islamic law, or Shariah, in Egypt and have been railing against tourists drinking alcohol or wearing skimpy bathing suits at beach resorts.

"Al-Nour will sweep the vote here for sure," said Ali Abdel-Ghaffar, a Salafi party member standing inside a polling center in Giza province on the western outskirts of Cairo illegally campaigning. "People are Salafi by nature. For them even sitting in a coffee shop is improper," he said.

It was difficult to say how widespread any abuses or irregularities were, but more allegations surfaced in this round than in the previous one in November as competition heats up.

Among other problems, parties continued to campaign outside polling centers in violation of the election law, which imposes 48 hours of campaign silence before polls open.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which led the first round with 47 percent of the vote, and an alliance of liberal youth parties have filed complaints, saying officials at several stations were telling voters who to choose.

The party issued a report Thursday accusing supervising judges in the province of Beheira, 112 miles (180 kilometers) north of Cairo, of guiding voters to choose Al-Nour, the Brotherhood's key Islamist rival and the second-place vote getter.

In another polling center, two judges, a school administrator and a village mayor filled in ballots for candidates who were members of Mubarak's dissolved ruling party and are now running as independents or members of new parties, the Brotherhood said.

On Thursday, a representative from the Brotherhood accused a judge of instructing voters to vote for a competing party, a military officer at the polling station in al-Agouza neighborhood in Giza said. The judge filed a police complaint against the representative, who was escorted to the nearby police station for investigation, the officer said.

At the same station, a liberal party representative accused volunteers of paying voters to choose Islamist candidates, and complained to the military officer guarding the station.

In nearby Dokki district, officials at polling centers flooded with ultraconservative Islamist party banners were seen filling out ballot papers for voters, according to a youth party born out of the uprising called The Egyptian Current.

Another secular alliance of mostly liberal youth parties, Revolution Continues, said its representatives in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia were kicked out of polling centers after complaining that officials there were telling voter who to vote for.

Nashwa el-Houfi, an independent candidate and a journalist, gave a detailed account of a judge marking ballots on his desk inside a polling center. El-Houfi told the private Egyptian TV network CBC on Wednesday that she tried to take a picture of the judge when he refused to stop marking the ballots. She said the judge later held her inside the polling center after closing its doors and summoned police.

Judge Ahmed Helal, who was monitoring a polling station in Shebein el-Kom in Menoufia province, said it was his legal duty to assist people who cannot mark ballots on their own. According to an official Cabinet report in June, nearly 27 percent of the 85 million Egyptians are illiterate.

"It's the law that we have to help the voter to vote in case they are incapable or cannot see," he said. "We tell them what's on the ballot and they tell us how they want to vote."

Helal held a copy of the election law, which included a clause that said it is the legal right of judges to assist voters when needed. It specified, as an example, that judges can mark ballots for the blind. 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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