CAIRO – Rumor had it a devious conspiracy was afoot: Egyptians voting for a new president Saturday were being tricked into using pens with disappearing ink so their choice on the ballot would vanish before it was counted.
"Is this the right pen?" an old man in a traditional galabeya robe shouted, holding one up to the judge supervising at a polling station in Giza, the sister city of Egypt's capital, Cairo.
There was no concrete evidence for the rumors, but some voters in polling stations around the city were clearly concerned as they marked their paper ballots. Talk of a plot just deepened Egyptians' worries that the dirty tricks rife in elections under authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak were still in play and that powers greater than them still manipulate the system, even after a revolution last year aimed at bringing transparency.
The claim seems to have emerged two days before the vote. A right-wing, Rush Limbaugh-style TV host, Tawfiq Okasha, known for his backing of the ruling military, accused the Muslim Brotherhood of importing 180,000 disappearing-ink pens from India. He proclaimed that they intended to distribute the pens outside polling stations to voters they believed would vote for Ahmed Shafiq, the former Mubarak prime minister running against the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi.
"I warn everyone. I warn the Shafiq campaign. I warn all voters," Okasha shouted on his show on the satellite channel he owns. "The voter will make his mark on the ballot with it and four hours later the mark disappears. The vote counters will open the ballot and find it blank."
A Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, denied the claims.
The rumor gained further ground when officials suggested the plot was a reality, though they did not accuse the Brotherhood or any other group.
Speaking to journalists Saturday, the interior minister in charge of security forces warned that the pens had indeed been brought in from abroad.
Farouq Sultan, the head of the presidential election commission, said that "once the rumor" spread, the commission asked the Interior Ministry to provide 50,000 pens for the polling centers to use. He and the interior minister said that election workers had been instructed not to let voters use anything but the official pens. Sultan said that "as far as he knew," some vanishing-ink pens had been discovered in circulation.
An anonymous SMS sent en masse to some mobile phones Saturday repeated the accusations the Brotherhood were passing out the pens.
At a polling center in the Cairo district of Shubra el-Kheima, the supervising judge was tearing his hair out over voters fussing over pens. One woman brought a pen from home because she didn't even trust the official one. Another wanted to take her ballot outside to wait to ensure her checkmark didn't disappear, said the judge, Mohammed el-Minshawi.
"These rumors are corrupting the national consciousness," he said. "I am hitting the ceiling. This is a dirty election game that aims to make people lose trust in the process," he said.
AP correspondents Maggie Michael and Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.