CAIRO, Egypt, AP – The second-place finisher in Egypt”s presidential election joined protesters demanding reform in Cairo on Saturday, while human rights groups said up to 15 percent of the vote may be questionable but it was marred by less fraud than past ballots.
The amount of fraud would not be enough to overturn the re-election of President Hosni Mubarak, who won Egypt”s first-ever contested presidential vote with 88 percent support, said Hafez Abu Saada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
President Bush called Mubarak to congratulate him, but the United States — which has urged the 77-year-old leader to introduce greater reforms — also said his government must do more to ensure clean elections.
Wednesday”s vote represented "an important step toward holding fully free and fair competitive multi-party elections," the White House said in a statement, adding that it expects that "the flaws that were visible in this election will be corrected for November”s parliamentary election."
The election was the first in which Mubarak, a key U.S. ally in power for 24 years, has faced opponents. Previously, he was re-elected in referendums in which he was the sole candidate.
The balloting was marred by low turnout and allegations of voting irregularities. Many Egyptians also were apathetic over a race Mubarak had been certain to win over his nine little-known opponents.
Though Abu Saada said the official turnout figure of 23 percent was likely correct, another group of independent monitors said it was likely even lower.
"No more than 18 percent of voters showed up at polling centers that were observed" by the group, said the Independent Committee for Election Monitoring, which deployed some 2,200 observers during the balloting.
Egyptian political analyst Amr el-Choubaki credited pressure by observers and judges for forcing the elections commission to admit a "realistic" turnout figure of 23 percent, compared to past inflated figures.
The low turnout among the 32 million registered voters deeply mars an election that Mubarak”s government tried to present as putting Egypt on the path toward greater democracy.
Nour, who came in second with 7.3 percent of the vote, joined about 1,000 pro-reform activists marching through downtown Cairo on Saturday, denouncing the election results as fraudulent and calling Mubarak”s rule "void."
Protesters swarmed around Nour, kissing and hugging him. "By God, we wanted you," one man told him.
Some bystanders joined the march as police watched but did nothing to restrict the protesters — a sharp contrast to pre-election protests in which demonstrators were confined to a small area and sometimes beaten. Police kept away a smaller group of pro-Mubarak demonstrators.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Independent Committee for Election Monitoring each issued reports outlining numerous violations and possible fraud. They denounced the secrecy with which the elections commission carried out the closed-door counting of ballots.
Despite the widespread problems, "the number of the violations is much less than the elections Egypt has seen since the 1980s," the EOHR said in its report, prepared with 21 other rights groups that together had 2,500 observers during the vote.
One of the main problems was that in some cases large groups of voters were bused to polling stations where they were not registered and allowed to cast ballots without proving their registration, the organization said.
"The percentage (of such votes) does not exceed between 5 and 15 percent," Abu Saada told The Associated Press.
Nour, the head of the opposition al-Ghad party, said he got about 32 percent of the vote according to figures he said he received from pro-reform judges. "We will not bestow legitimacy on something that is illegitimate," he said at a press conference.
But there appears to be little the opposition can do. The Presidential Elections Commission, which oversaw the vote, has declared that the vote was fair and its decisions cannot be appealed.