SANDOUB, Egypt – Riot police cordoned off polling stations in this Nile Delta village Thursday to prevent people from voting as Egypt entered the final round of legislative elections that have been marred by violence and allegations of fraud.
The ability to vote varied from town to town among the nine provinces where polling took place, but the use of police to stop people from voting in this northern village or to deter them from voting in some southern villages appeared to show that the government had gone back on its promise of free and fair elections.
"I'm calling on his excellency, the president, to appoint the members of parliament because no one has been allowed to vote," Sameer Fikri, a voter, said sarcastically. "It would save the money wasted on elections."
Under U.S. pressure to make Egypt democratic, President Hosni Mubarak had granted the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamic party, considerable leeway to campaign in the early stages of the elections, but the state appeared to intervene after the group did far better than anyone had expected.
Fikri, 50, an electrician, was one of dozens of people who waited patiently in front of lines of riot police, armed with sticks, rifles and tear gas launchers, in Sandoub, 75 miles north of Cairo.
A police lieutenant said "I don't know" when asked why both polling stations in the village had been cordoned off. An Associated Press reporter was not allowed in the polling station to ask officials there despite having the required election press pass.
One reason could be that Sandoub is the hometown of Saber Zaher, a favored candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has proved to be the pacesetter for change in the staggered elections. In the two earlier rounds of polling this month, Brotherhood-backed candidates won 76 seats in the 454-seat parliament, more than five times its representation in the outgoing assembly.
Its success appears to have led directly to the upsurge in violence and interference in last week's voting in the second round runoffs.
More than 500 Brotherhood supporters were arrested earlier this week, the police have said. About 1,300 Brotherhood loyalists are believed to have been arrested since polling began on Nov. 9. Many have been released but hundreds are still in custody.
Voting was light but completely unhindered in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig on Thursday. Voters walked into adjacent schools turned into polling stations — one for men, one for women — in the city's Nahal district, where the outspoken Muslim Brotherhood legislator Mohammed Morsi is standing for re-election.
In Tahta, 280 kilometers south of Cairo, an estimated 500 police officers were stationed on roads leading to the polling station in the town's School of Commerce. Voters were not denied access, but some said they feared the police.
"I don't know whether I should vote now or come back later," said one voter, Ahmed Mohammed Abdel Salam, who supported the Muslim Brotherhood. "I heard that the police have arrested so many people, especially those who vote for Brotherhood."
Police were also deployed in huge numbers in Shatoura, about five miles from Tahta.
When The Associated Press asked a senior police officer about the deployment, he replied: "We fear clashes breaking out between the supporters of candidates."
More than 10 million Egyptians were eligible to vote in the final round, where the last 136 parliamentary seats were being contested by 1,774 candidates.
The Brotherhood, which has campaigned under the slogan "Islam is the solution," has been banned since 1954. But it has long been tolerated, and it circumvents its prohibition from the elections by fielding "independent" candidates whose allegiance to the Brotherhood is known to voters.
The first-round vote and run-off passed with little violence, but the extraordinary showing by the Brotherhood led to a government crackdown. In the second round and run-offs, police blocked Brotherhood supporters from some polling stations and pro-government supporters assaulted perceived Brotherhood voters at other stations.
At some polling places, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to discourage voters in the second round. At least one person has been killed in polling violence.
Independent election monitors and Egyptian human rights organizations have been highly critical of what they call regime-sponsored violence.
The Paris-based press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, has condemned government-inspired violence and harassment, and Amnesty International has expressed concern over the second round mayhem.
Going into the last round of voting, 302 seats have been decided, and judges threw out results or canceled voting for 6 seats because of violence or irregularities. The NDP has won 201 seats, the Brotherhood has 76 and other independent or opposition candidates have taken 25.