Apathy and chaos mar Egyptian poll
By William Wallis in Cairo
Published: September 8 2005 03:00 | Last updated: September 8 2005 03:00

Shambolic organisation, voter apathy and allegations of irregularities threatened yesterday to put a dampener on Egypt's first experiment with contested presidential elections.

Reports of people wandering for hours in search of polling stations where their names were registered were common. They provided a sharp contrast to the tight organisation at President Hosni Mubarak's campaign headquarters.

Mr Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, has presented Egypt's first contested presidential polls as a new democratic start and urged voters to turn out en masse in support of political change on his terms. He is expected to win with ease against nine challengers, most of them little known.

The election has sparked an unprecedented debate about Egypt's political future, with some activists describing a rebirth of national politics after years of authoritarian rule. But there had been controversy over how free and fair voting would be.

In a vast tent erected in a Cairo public gardens, hundreds of ruling National Democratic party militants manned telephone lines and banks of computers. A top NDP official, who has helped spearhead Mr Mubarak's campaign for a fifth six-year term in office, said at least 50,000 party officials - roughly five for each polling station - would be working to marshal the president's supporters to polling stations around the country.

On the ground NDP militants were also out in force - some of them violating procedures by guiding voters up to the ballot box. Outside one polling station Mr Mubarak's supporters were handing out raffle tickets with prizes ranging from a sponsored pilgrimage to Mecca to new household appliances.

It was not immediately clear, however, of how widespread irregularities were. Ahmed Mekki, who is preparing a report on the elections for an independent committee of judges, said problems were being reported. But initially these appeared on a smaller scale than in past elections.

Initial signs were that a public accustomed to authoritarian rule has remained apathetic. At a sample of six polling stations, only 6 per cent of voters had turned up by early evening. Polling stations were due to close at 10pm.

The biggest organisational problem was with the voting register. "We have been unhappy all along with the way the register has been done. In the end it has created chaos," said the supervising judge in one station, where about a third of voters had been unable to cast their ballot.

In a report outlining scattered irregularities, the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary said the redistribution of voter lists had meant many voters did not know where they were supposed to go.

"This looks like a typical Egyptian election. People can vote or cannot vote without any rules. Some polling stations have judges supervising. Some don't," said Mohamed Zara, of the National Campaign for Monitoring the Elections, a coalition of NGOs.

The ruling NDP also complained. Mohamed Kamal, a leading member of Mr Mubarak's campaign team, said that in some rural governorates supervision was slow and voter lists confusing.