Voters fought with riot police restricting access to the polls in the last stage of Egyptian elections on Thursday and the Muslim Brotherhood said the government was trying to limit Islamist gains in parliament.
One man was shot to death outside a polling station where police were holding voters back, the third death in the elections. Rights activists said police shot the man, but the authorities denied it.
The Muslim Brotherhood has posed the strongest challenge to the ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP, increasing its seats in the chamber by more than 400 percent. The Islamist group says the government wants to stop it winning more seats.
Leading Brotherhood member Essam el-Erian said attempts to stop people voting for his group were more determined than on previous voting days. Some 730 Brotherhood activists had been arrested in the past three days to weaken its chances, he said.
Police surround polling stations
Riot police surrounded polling stations in the Nile Delta and let only a trickle of voters through their lines. Frustrated voters threw stones at security forces, who used tear gas and sticks against crowds in several places, witnesses said.
“The police plan is to tire out voters so that they go home. Everyone here is going to vote Brotherhood,” Sayed Ibrahim, a Brotherhood supporter, said outside a polling station in Dessouk, a town in Kafr el-Sheikh province north of Cairo.
The election death toll climbed to three when Gomaa Saad el-Ziftawi was shot dead in Kafr el-Sheikh. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said he was a supporter of a leftist politician and was killed by police.
The Interior Ministry said he was an NDP supporter and the police never used live bullets in civil disturbances.
Some 20 Brotherhood and NDP supporters brawled outside another polling station in Kafr el-Sheikh.
The government said Brotherhood supporters had broken ballot boxes in one polling station and gathered in at least one place to “cause disturbances.” Two policemen were injured in Damietta on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, it said.
U.S. on the sidelines
The United States kept to its policy of only mildly criticizing one its closest allies in the Middle East and said the election advanced Egypt on a path toward democracy.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reiterated the United States believed the government wanted a peaceful vote but could not explain why the violence appeared at odds with Egypt’s pledges to hold such an election.
Still, he suggested the United States was dismayed at the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, even though Washington supports Egypt’s official ban on the group. He noted that in any election the misapplication of a law “to impede the peaceful political expression” would worry Washington.
The voting process is officially under judicial supervision but the judges in charge cannot impose their will beyond the confines of the polling stations.
“I know what they (the riot police) are doing but there’s nothing I can do about it,” said one judiciary official in Bassat, three hours north of Cairo. He asked not to be identified.
The Egyptian Association for the Support of Democracy, an independent monitoring group, said one judge had threatened to walk out of a polling station with the ballot boxes if the police did not admit voters.
Brotherhood soldiers on
The Brotherhood, which had 15 seats in the outgoing parliament, has won 76 of 444 elected places so far. The authorities restricted voting in the previous stage of the poll, but the Brotherhood still managed to win 42 seats.
The ruling party has 214 seats so far.
Voting was peaceful on Thursday in some places, including Sohag province in the south. Violence has been less serious than in the last vote in 2000, when 10 people were killed.
The final two-day stage will decide 136 seats.
The Brotherhood is contesting only 49 places as part of its strategy of not provoking the authorities. Islamist candidates are contesting the seats as independents.
The Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera said security forces arrested one of its crew. Police also held Reuters correspondent Amil Khan in Sandoub for about an hour, saying they needed to check his identity.
Runoffs between the top two candidates will be held on Dec. 7 for seats where no candidate has won a clear majority.