In Egypt, a half-step toward democracy

Vote: The president faces challengers for the first time but is virtually certain to win tomorrow.

September 06, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO - For the past several weeks, during the first contested presidential election campaign they have ever known, Egyptians have witnessed a remarkable makeover of their long-serving president, Hosni Mubarak.

The long-unchallenged leader of a government that has jailed and tortured its critics, Mubarak for the past 19 days has been ridiculed by political opponents and a previously fawning press.

The president, in a series of well-choreographed campaign stops, has recast his image from that of an unapproachable modern pharaoh to a warmer, life-size politician who hugs peasants as well as professors, sips tea with penniless farmers and confesses that he "feels their pain."

And, most remarkable of all, Egyptians have heard their president humbly ask for their vote.

Until now, they have never had a choice. For the 24 years he has been in power, Mubarak has run unopposed in referendums offering Egyptians the option of voting "yes" or "no," a process widely condemned by opposition groups as a sham.

Facing opponents

But tomorrow, Egyptians will go to the polls and be handed ballots with the names of Mubarak and nine challengers.

No one here doubts that Mubarak, 77, will win easily. His ruling National Democratic Party controls the state-run media, a patronage system that fills tens of thousands of jobs and all government institutions.

The government also took care to block the strongest opposition groups from fielding candidates and authorized a short campaign season - 19 days - making it impossible for the president's largely unknown challengers to get their message out.

Cairo's streets are plastered with banners and billboards displaying photos and paintings of a bright-eyed but serious Mubarak alongside his campaign slogan: "Leadership and crossing to the future," while signs for opponents are nearly invisible.

Most of the other candidates are not considered serious challengers. Among them is a 91-year-old fortuneteller who promises to reintroduce the fez - the conical hat out of fashion since the dissolute era of King Farouk - and a former hospital administrator whose wife has come out publicly against him, dismissing his campaign as a waste of time because Mubarak will win anyway.

Still, even the president's critics acknowledge that Mubarak's once-intolerant government has opened the door to political debate and even a good dose of criticism. That alone is a huge step forward.

"No longer is the president just a sacred icon. He is being criticized, sometimes very harshly," said Mohammed Al Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "The cult of personality has been sharply undermined."

To many of the president's critics, the election rules are a deft display of political trickery, creating only the illusion of democracy to satisfy the Bush administration's call for change in the Middle East.

Despite pleas by the United States for Egypt to invite international election observers, Mubarak has rejected the request, raising fears that election day will include ballot stuffing and other irregularities.

The country's main Islamic political organization and strongest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned from fielding a candidate and is not throwing its considerable influence behind any challengers.

But the brotherhood, which since its founding in 1928 has served as inspiration for other Islamic movements, including Hamas and Hezbollah, is encouraging its members to vote as a way to prepare for future political contests, including parliamentary elections this year.

"We believe the presidential election is more of a play than an exercise in real democracy," said Mohammed Habib, first deputy to the brotherhood's high council. "But there is a small crack in the wall. This type of political discourse you could never have before."

No one knows how far Mubarak's administration is willing to go with its democratic experiment. In the past, the government has swung between periods of tolerance followed by tough crackdowns on political discourse. But it might be difficult for Mubarak to return to the days of emergency laws that for decades forbade most political activity, now that he has whetted the public's appetite for something different.

Opening a door

"There is not turning back. We are going until the end. We will not be intimidated by arrests, beatings or torture," said Ahmed Salah, 38, one of the leaders of the Kifayah ("Enough" in Arabic) movement, an opposition group that has called for a boycott of the elections because it doubts they can be free or fair.

Although there are many questions surrounding this election's credibility, two challengers stand a chance of gaining a significant number of votes.

One is Noaman Gomaa, 71, a former law school dean who heads the New Wafd party, Egypt's oldest political party and advocates freeing the economy and civil society from government control.

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