Private Groups May Monitor Egypt Election

An Egyptian court ruled Saturday that non-governmental groups will be allowed to monitor the nation's first multi-candidate presidential election next week.

The court also referred parts of a contentious law regulating Wednesday's first-ever presidential vote to another court to determine their constitutionality.

Both decisions, which can be appealed, were seen as victories for private organizations wanting to monitor the vote and independents challenging the election law.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president since 1981, is almost certain to win a fifth term in Wednesday's elections, which for the first time are open to more than one candidate.

Mubarak has been elected four times previously in referendums giving voters only ``yes'' or ``no'' to choose from. This system, plus other electoral practices, have been long criticized as undemocratic by local and foreign activists.

Hafez Abu Saada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, praised the court's decision to let non-governmental groups monitor the polls.

Abu Saada, however, said he feared the elections committee may challenge the verdict.

Private groups can monitor the vote from inside and outside polling stations under the supervision of the station's head, the court ruled, adding that the decision to allow monitors was not part of the elections committee's authorities.

Mubarak said Egyptian non-governmental groups were ``guaranteed'' to be allowed to follow the vote, adding that foreign and local media would also be present.

``Nothing can be hidden in the era of the open skies. The elections will be free, fair and transparent,'' he told Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper, in an interview carried by Egypt's Middle East News Agency.

The court handed down a wide-ranging verdict on 39 elections-related petitions, including an order that seven articles in the presidential elections law be referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court.

They include an article requiring independent presidential aspirants to collect 250 signatures from parliament and local councils dominated by Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party for their nomination to be accepted.

Opposition groups have said this condition virtually gives the ruling party say over who may contest the vote and excludes qualified independents. No independents have been allowed to run, AP reported.

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