Opposition candidates tell of multiple obstacles

For the residents of Shubra Al Khaima, one of the Egyptian capital¿s poorest suburbs, election day was a study in contrasts.

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CAIRO // For the residents of Shubra Al Khaima, one of the Egyptian capital's poorest suburbs, election day was a study in contrasts.

Aatif Masaoud, a candidate for the ruling National Democratic Party and a former officer in Egypt's state security service, strode confidently behind his Mercedes-Benz through Shubra's rough-hewn streets, glancing at passers-by from behind a pair of elegant sunglasses.

He was followed moments later by a raucous mob of young men almost incapable of containing their exuberance. Amidst the mass of heads and elbows, one could barely glimpse Mohammed ElBiltagy, Shubra's incumbent parliamentarian and one of the leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist organisation that was, until recently, tolerated by the ruling regime.

"The whole Egyptian street is with us. They are tired of the corruption and dictatorship that has been practised by the NDP for the past 30 years," said Mr ElBiltagy. "But what is happening inside the polling stations has nothing to do with elections."

By noon, Mr ElBiltagy was already preparing to appeal election returns that were hours away from being counted. Of the 289 delegates Mr ElBiltagy appointed to monitor each polling station in Shubra, he claimed that all had either been denied entry or had been forced out of the voting places by the state security service.

It is a complaint that was echoed by opposition candidates and election observers throughout the country yesterday. Each candidate is guaranteed his or her own representative in each polling station. It is a system that gives them eyes in the places where corruption and voter manipulation are most likely to occur.

"The biggest problem is the prevention of delegates of candidates from entering the polling stations," said Maged Adeeb, a general director of the National Center for Human Rights, a small non-governmental organisation that was - unofficially - monitoring elections yesterday in several districts outside Cairo.

A few steps away from the cheering crowds on one of Shubra's main roads, shops were shuttered and few residents could be seen.

"People here feel afraid. This electoral process has a black history," said Mr Adeeb. "Come two days later, you'll see how many people are walking in these side streets."

Except for the children who seemed delighted to see their schools used for any other purpose, most of the afternoon's foot-traffic belonged to those brave enough to vote.

Out of the 290,000 registered voters in Shubra Al Khaima, Mr Adeeb's group had counted only about 1,100 voters by 2.30 pm - a number that he called "very, very small".

Yousuf Yaser, an independent candidate in Shubra Al Khaima who immediately acknowledged that he is "very unlikely" to win, said vote-buying was rampant yesterday.

"People are lacking political awareness. The effect here is a financial effect. Some people pay for the votes," Mr Yasser said. "The NDP candidates are mainly the ones paying for votes, but some of the independent candidates, too."

Fatima al Saidi could have cited religious devotion as the reason she cast her ballot for the Muslim Brotherhood's Mr ElBiltagy. Instead, she said she receives a monthly allowance from the Brotherhood to help cope with her daily expenses.

"He stands with us for a better life," she said. "I want to vote because I want to express my rights."

* With additional reporting by Schadi Semnani in Cairo