Washington Post Highlights IRI Staff Being Barred From Leaving Egypt

January 29, 2012

As Egyptian election’s second phase begins, voter turnout falls dramatically
The Washington Post

By Ernesto Londoño

CAIRO — Turnout was markedly low Sunday as Egyptians cast ballots to begin electing the upper house of parliament, in sharp contrast to the first day of voting for the lower house in November, when voters lined up for blocks and voted in record numbers.

Voters and those who abstained from the polls Sunday cited a sense of weariness about the complex, staggered election process that is expected to conclude next month.

Egyptians see parliamentary elections as the first key test of the country’s transition to democracy after three decades of autocratic rule by former President Hosni Mubarak. But many say they have grown cynical about the promise of elections as the mood in Egypt has soured amid continuing clashes, protests and deepening economic stagnation.

Islamist parties won more than 70 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament, which was seated last week. The upper house, known as the Shura Council, is a consultative body that can weigh in on constitutional issues but otherwise has little authority. Mubarak had used the Shura Council to rubber-stamp his administration’s initiatives. This time around, political analysts said, Islamists are widely expected to take control of the council.

“There’s a sense of resignation that Islamists will get the majority of votes,” Mustapha Kamel El-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University said, suggesting that the feeling probably affected turnout. “There’s also election fatigue. Egyptians have been going to elections for the past six weeks, and I think they are fed up with too many elections.”

Fatma Mohammad Ibrahim, 62, was among the few voters who trickled into a polling station near the Nile River in downtown Cairo about noon.

“I put my country above everything,” she said, standing next to her husband. “I’m old and sick, but I’m here for my country’s sake.”

Menna El-Tohamy, 22, a university student, said she found out about the latest round of voting only on Saturday. She said she decided not to vote because she didn’t have time to learn about the candidates.

“Maybe we got depressed” after the initial phase, which saw a record turnout, she said. “We’re still in the same situation.”

Meanwhile Sunday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry pushed back on U.S. media reports that said lobbying firms in Washington abruptly dropped the country as a client over a crackdown here targeting U.S.-funded non-governmental organizations.

The ministry said in a statement that the Egyptian government, not the lobbyists, had canceled the contract to save money. The suspension came in the wake of growing angst in Washington over Egypt’s decision to bar at least 10 U.S. citizens from leaving the country. Among them is Sam LaHood, the country director of the International Republican Institute, which trains politicians and political parties. LaHood is the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The move is part of an investigation into the work of civil society groups that receive foreign funding. Egyptian officials have said the groups fueled unrest over the past year. The organizations and the Obama administration have criticized the probe and urged the Egyptian government to lift the travel ban.

The investigation and its fallout are likely to come up in meetings between U.S. officials and an Egyptian military delegation that arrived in New York on Sunday. State news agency MENA reported that the visit was meant to discuss “cooperation between the two countries in military affairs.” Egypt receives roughly $1.3 billion per year in foreign aid from the United States, mostly in military assistance.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.