BADAWI, Egypt, (Reuters) – Police fired teargas and rubber bullets to stop many Egyptians voting in the last round of Egypt”s parliamentary elections on Wednesday, repeating what Islamists say are tactics to limit their startling gains.
President Hosni Mubarak”s ruling party has maintained a big lead in voting that began on Nov. 9, but the Muslim Brotherhood has surprised the country by already winning 76 out of the assembly”s 454 seats, five times its previous tally.
The Brotherhood, which fields candidates as independents because the government bans it from forming a party, has said it expects to add 15 to 20 seats on Wednesday to its total. Rights groups have accused the authorities of widespread abuses, including blocking access to polling stations, vote-buying and fabricating results.
The United States has toughened previously mild criticism of how Egypt was conducting the vote, saying events raised concerns about the path of reforms in one of its key Middle East allies.
The government has pledged to hold free and fair elections, and in previous rounds has blamed the Brotherhood for violence.
In the Nile Delta town of Badawi, one of the seats where the Brotherhood was competing against Mubarak”s National Democratic Party(NDP), youths near a polling station hurled rocks at a cordon of police who fired teargas and rubber bullets back.
A Reuters witness saw several people hurt by the bullets, which caused bruising and bleeding where they hit exposed skin.
Mohamed Foda, 22, who was bleeding from his head, told Reuters: "We were here since 7 o”clock waiting to vote. They didn”t let us vote. People got angry and started throwing rocks. The police fired teargas and rubber bullets."
In another Delta town, Zagazig, police prevented about 200 veiled women from voting, dragging one woman back by her clothes when she broke through their cordon.
"There is no democracy. They don”t want to let us in," Amal Salim said as she waited in the street.
Similar scenes were repeated elsewhere. Police seized ladders from voters trying to climb into a polling station in the Kafr el-Sheikh area, human rights group Sawasya reported.
"They are preventing voters reaching the ballot boxes so that the result will not be positive (for the Brotherhood)," Brotherhood spokesman Badr Mohamed Badr said.
In Qaleen, a police officer said he was stopping voters because of earlier fighting, but the judge inside the empty polling station said he had heard no disturbance. "There has been no trouble whatsoever," Judge Bahaeddin Shawky said.
Voting has been staggered across the country so that judges can monitor polling. About 11,000 judicial personnel are monitoring the process, but judges in charge have no say beyond the confines of the polling stations.
In previous rounds, voters also clashed with riot police. Three people have been killed in the elections so far.
The United States has toughened its stance on Egypt in response to the clashes and after authorities detained former presidential candidate Ayman Nour during his trial on forgery charges, which Nour says are politically motivated.
"We”ve seen a number of developments over the past couple of weeks during the parliamentary elections that raise serious concerns about the path of liberal reform in Egypt," deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said on Tuesday.
Voting had been due to take place for 127 seats but legal disputes over last week”s results delayed voting in some areas, the Brotherhood and a rights group said.
Secular opposition parties have been the biggest losers, securing only a few seats, leaving the NDP on the verge of winning two-thirds to retain control of the constitution.