(Cairo) - Elections to Egypt's People's Assembly on November 28, 2010, were marred by reports that opposition supporters were barred from polling stations and subjected to violence, Human Rights Watch said today. There were reports of numerous irregularities including arrests and harassment of journalists, denial of access for opposition candidate representatives to 30 polling stations visited by Human Rights Watch across the country and widespread allegations of voter fraud.
"The authorities promised that Egyptian civil society could monitor the elections without the need for international observers," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division. "Unfortunately the repeated exclusion of opposition representatives and independent monitors from polling stations, along with reports of violence and fraud suggest that citizens were not able to partake in free elections."
Human Rights Watch did not monitor the voting or counting process and did not seek access to polling stations. Human Rights Watch representatives went to 30 polling stations in six governorates and interviewed voters, candidate representatives, as well as civil society observers and journalists outside polling stations in order to assess the human rights environment surrounding the elections.
Denial of Access for Candidate Representatives, Voters, and Independent Observers
Human Rights Watch met with representatives of independent and opposition candidates outside most of these polling stations. They consistently reported that in the vast majority of cases, polling and security officials denied representatives access to polling stations when they did not have a police stamp on the notarized form identifying them as a candidate's proxy, and in many cases even where they did have such a stamp from a police station.
By law, each candidate has the right to one representative in every polling station in his or her district and candidates had provided representatives with notarized proxies. But on the morning of voting day, polling station officials told candidate representatives that this document was insufficient and that they would need to get it stamped by the local police station. An administrative court ruling in November determined that it was sufficient to have a general proxy, that has been notarized, and that the additional authentication by the police station was not necessary.
In Hadayik el Kobba, in the east of Cairo, the Hadayik police station refused to stamp the proxies of representatives of independent candidate Amr Zaki. As a result none of the candidate's representatives were able to enter the polling stations.
In Alexandria, Human Rights Watch observed independent candidate Osama Kamal try to enter the Mustafa Kamel polling station. Officials at the door turned him away and told him he needed another stamp from a police station.
A number of polling stations were closed for at least several hours during the day, in violation of regulations issued by the Higher Elections Committee, which ordered polls open between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. In the Cairo neighborhood of Dokki, Human Rights Watch observed the Hoda Shaarawy polling station for women, which opened at 8 a.m. At 9 a.m. security officers forcibly removed representatives of opposition candidates. At 9:30 a.m. they closed the polling station, though a large crowd outside called on them to "open the doors." Security officers there told Human Rights Watch representatives and a local journalist to stop filming and ordered them to move away. They did not give a reason for the closure. Around midday officers finally opened the gate again and slowly started allowing people in.
Arwa Abd al-Rahman, the representative for the Wafd party candidate at that polling station, told Human Rights Watch:
I had the right proxy, signed and stamped by the police station, and they still wouldn't let me in. The head of the polling station sent me to the State Security officer, who threw my permit away and told me "you're not going in," giving me a painful shove on my back to make me leave.
In Karmouz, in Alexandria, women voters who had planned to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate running as an independent said that officers denied them access to the polling station. In the Delta city of Samanoud, Mustafa Nashar, 44, a lawyer and spokesperson for another independent candidate, Saad Ismat al-Husseini, told Human Rights Watch that poll officials arrived at Sayyida Zainab polling station at around 8:30 a.m., a half hour after the scheduled opening, and that police officers with them preventing voters from entering. "When I explained who I was," Nashar said, "one of the officers verbally abused me and hit me on my shoulder, saying, ‘There are no elections today'."
Voters waiting to enter Sayyida Zainab, a women-only polling station, pushed their way in at that point and, Nashar claimed, found some see-through ballot boxes that already contained several hundred ballots, an indication, Nashar claimed, that ballot-stuffing had started early.
One female voter who did not wish to be named, told Human Rights Watch that at 3.30 p.m. at Sayyida Aisha, another women-only polling station in Samanoud, a police officer and colleagues, all without uniforms but wearing sidearms, entered the school from a rear door and expelled all the candidate representatives unrelated to the ruling National Democratic Party - as far as she knew these representatives were all associated with independent candidates.
Human Rights Watch encountered other instances where groups of young men, and sometimes women, entered polling stations in substantial numbers for the apparent purpose of disrupting polling and intimidating voters supporting opposition candidates. Ahmad Noh, a candidate for the legally-recognized leftist opposition party Tagammu` in the Gharbiyya village of Shubra Babil, in Mahalla, told Human Rights Watch that his representatives were also barred from polling stations.
At the Um al-Abtal polling station in Tala, in the governorate of Munufiya north of Cairo, Bashwat Hamed, a lawyer and proxy for independent candidate Muhammad Anwar Sadat said that at 11 a.m., having had to argue her way inside, officials kicked out the representative of an independent candidate affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. She said she then went into a room where she saw the head of the polling station stuffing ballots into a voting box.
When Human Rights Watch visited the Um al-Abtal polling station shortly before the 7 p.m. close of voting, several dozen opposition supporters tried to prevent poll workers from loading boxes of what they believed were fraudulently stuffed ballot boxes onto trucks. At that point the crowd was charged by a handful of uniformed Central Security officers along with several dozen young men in plain clothes swinging large sticks. Several Central Security armored vehicles escorted the ballot trucks to the main counting headquarters.
Human Rights Watch observed at that point another organized column of men with sticks approaching the polling station. When they arrived outside the polling station, Human Rights Watch overheard a uniformed officer tell them they were "no longer needed" and sent them to another location - a clear indication that the plain clothed men were being directed by police.
At the ballot counting center for Tala, several hundred Central Security troops and riot police formed a security cordon. Human Rights Watch observed inside the counting center dozens of uniformed security personnel as well as a similar number of men in plainclothes still carrying sticks. At that point counting had not yet begun.
Violence, Arrests, and the Role of Security sSrvices
According to Muslim Brotherhood lawyer Abdelmoneim Abdelmaqsud, security forces arrested a total of 186 members from in front of polling stations in Port Said, Ismailiya, Damietta, Beheira and Dakahliya.
In Abu Sulaiman neighborhood in El Raml of Alexandria, independent candidate Subhi Saleh told Human Rights Watch that he was roughed up during a visit to the polling station in the Alexandria suburb of Abis to hear voters' complaints. No representatives of candidates from parties other than the ruling NDP were inside, Saleh said. At about 1:30 p.m. in the street outside the station, several dozen young men attacked Saleh and a dozen of his supporters with fists and sticks. Saleh, who was running against Abd al-Salam al-Mahgoub, a former governor of Alexandria, said that someone grabbed him by the throat and choked him. Six witnesses confirmed his account to Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch met with Saleh about an hour later, at about 2:30 p.m., in a car on a highway at the edge of the village. "This all happened under the eyes of police," he told Human Rights Watch. His collar was torn and stained with blood.
Human Rights Watch spoke with several supporters of opposition candidates who were victims of election-day violence in the Delta city of Samanoud. Muhammad Awad, 37, a representative of independent candidate Abd al-Halim Hilal, was at the Sadat Secondary School polling station at around 9:30 a.m. when a large group of young men with knives and machetes came inside the school and pulled him and a colleague, 47-year-old Sayid Ibrahim Muhammad al-Wakil, out into the schoolyard. Awad had a large wound on his head above his left temple, dressed in bandages, from what he said was a knife attack. Al-Wakil had a vivid gash at least six inches long on his forearm, which he said he got when he raised his arm to shield his head from a blow with a wooden stick studded with nails. The two men told Human Rights Watch that they recognized some of their attackers, whom they characterized as low-level neighborhood criminals and drug-dealers. They claimed they also recognized in the schoolyard some men whom they said were with the Ministry of Interior's State Security Investigations division.
Mahmud Abd al-Wahhab Khalil, the 21-year-old nephew and also the driver of the same independent candidate, Abd al-Halim Hilal, was lying on a hospital bed in the Samanoud hospital when Human Rights Watch met with him. He said that a large group whom he characterized as "thugs" entered the yard of the Mubarak Educational Complex polling station, shouting that they were closing the school on behalf of Muhammad al-Berberi, an NDP candidate and also a former high-ranking police official. Khalil said when some of the men discovered his association with the opposition candidate they surrounded him and began beating him on the legs with large sticks. Khalil said then when he solicited assistance from uniformed security forces "they shooed me away."
Human Rights Watch met briefly with a local police official in Samanoud When asked about reports of violence against opposition candidate supporters, the official claimed to be unaware of any such incidents.
Attacks on Journalists
Security officers arrested and briefly detained at least 10 journalists and harassed and restricted dozens of others on voting day. Adam Makary, from Al Jazeera English, told Human Rights Watch that polling station officials denied him accesses to the six polling stations he had visited despite the fact that he had the required permits.
Photojournalist Bassem Mortada from Al- Masry al-Youm English told Human Rights Watch:
I was in Helwan, standing on the street outside a polling station taking pictures as five large buses arrived and large group of civil servants descended and went into the polling station. After a while an officer saw me and came over ordering me to stop. He made me go into the polling station with him, took my camera away and wiped off all the pictures. He questioned me for around 20 minutes and finally let me go after telling me that I was not allowed to take any pictures for the rest of the day.
In Shubra, officers arrested Ahram English Portal journalist Yasmine Fathy for half an hour. Jano Charbel, a journalist with Al-Masry al-Youm English, told Human Rights Watch:
In Mahalla, I had been filming outside and went inside the gate to the polling station. When I went inside a police officer stopped me and questioned me for about 20 minutes about who I was and what I was covering. They told me that I had to leave Mahalla immediately and go straight back to Cairo without visiting any other polling stations.
"The evidence suggests that Egyptian officials made a concerted effort to prevent opposition candidates from exercising their rights during voting," Stork said.