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Egypt to have first multicandidate vote
Updated: 2005-05-27 09:33

Voters overwhelmingly cleared the way for Egypt's first contested presidential election, according to referendum returns released Thursday. Government opponents dismissed the results.

It was a day of mixed news for President Hosni Mubarak as the White House denounced the beating of protesters during Wednesday's vote.

"The idea of people expressing themselves in opposition to the government, then getting beaten, is not our view of how a democracy ought to work," US President Bush said. "It's not the way that you have free elections."

Six opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had called for a boycott of the referendum, but the Interior Ministry said 54 percent of the 32 million registered voters about 16.4 million Egyptians participated. Of that, 83 percent approved the referendum.

"The voting masses have realized that political participation within a framework of constitutional legitimacy is the safe path toward the future," Interior Minister Habib el-Adly said on state-run television.

Egyptians, he said, also showed through their support for the referendum an understanding that everyone is "responsible for rejecting calls of sedition and division."

A high turnout was important to the government, which has been trying to portray opposition groups as a small, out-of-touch minority of Egyptians.

It wasn't clear how many voters heeded the call for a boycott. There was no independent, outside monitoring of results or turnout estimates.

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed the results and the referendum, saying: "I'm sad, and so sorry that ridiculing people has reached this level." The vote, he said, showed that the government isn't committed to reform.

Abdel-Halim Qandil, a spokesman of the largely secular reform group Kifaya, or Enough, which also boycotted the referendum, characterized the results as "black humor," saying all the returns were fabricated, including some "no" votes created for show.

Opposition newspapers published photos of purported irregularities, including shots said to be of two journalists voting at six separate stations and poll workers stuffing ballot boxes.

Mubarak, who has served for 24 years through unchallenged yes-no referendums, touted his call for multi-candidate presidential elections as a major democratic reform.

Critics say it is only an attempt to satisfy U.S.-led international calls for greater democracy in the Middle East, and that the constitution's new rules may allow for weak political challengers but will not loosen the ruling party's grip on power.

The amended constitution requires independents to get 250 recommendations from elected members of parliament and local councils which all are dominated by Mubarak's party before being allowed to enter the presidential race.

The 77-year-old president is widely expected to run again in September.

Bush, speaking at a Washington press conference with visiting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, noted his past support for Mubarak's tentative steps toward democracy.

"Those first steps must include people's ability to have access to TV, and candidates ought to be allowed to run freely in an election," Bush said, adding that "there ought to be international monitors."

"People ought to be allowed to express themselves. And I'm hopeful that the president will have open elections that everybody can have trust in," he said.

A few severe bursts of violence tainted referendum day, with plainclothes government agents beating protesters and watching as Mubarak supporters punched other demonstrators.

A senior Egyptian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was dismayed at the reports of violence but ruled out intentional harassment or political orders.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the Bush administration believes Mubarak's initiative to put in place competitive presidential elections is an important step.

"We think that should be accompanied by international election monitors and a real campaign," McClellan said. "It must be free and fair in order for it to have the broadest possible support from the people of Egypt and the international community."

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