For many in Egypt, Mubarak seems better than change

Election irregularities reported

president expected to hold office

September 08, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHUBRA EL KHEIMA, Egypt - Take one look at Said Muhammed Muhammed and you would find a dozen reasons why he might have cast a vote for change in Egypt's first contested presidential election yesterday.

Stooped like a cane with a halo of flies circling above his head, the 60-year-old resident of this hardscrabble neighborhood north of Cairo tugged his donkey cart on Election Day morning, scratching out a living the only way he knows how, hawking piles of moldy and stale bread for animal feed.

He and his neighbors live in dismal apartment towers; their rubbish-strewn streets are not paved, their children cannot find jobs and life, many here say, has gotten worse during the 24 years President Hosni Mubarak has been in office.

But Muhammed couldn't imagine voting for anyone else.

"We don't have anyone but him," he said of Mubarak.

Even with nine challengers on the ballot, Egypt's 77-year-old president emerged as the default candidate among voters, who either feared a change despite the country's unemployment, corruption and grinding poverty or saw no reason to dump Mubarak now.

Loyalty rewarded

There were also other, more immediate motivations to vote for Mubarak: Egyptian opposition groups and some citizens reported that Mubarak's National Democratic Party was rewarding loyal voters with food, cash, T-shirts and other gifts. Voters also reported being asked inside the polling station to cast their ballots for Mubarak.

No results will be available until later this week, although Mubarak is expected to win another six-year term easily.

His victory might be largely explained as the result of his control of the state-run news media, his ability to tap into the country's vast patronage system for votes and the government's decision to block the most powerful opposition groups from running in the election. There will also likely be more allegations of fraud.

Yet, among voters interviewed yesterday there appeared to be genuine, if often unenthusiastic, support for Mubarak.

Abdullah Mahmoud, 33, an English teacher in a government primary school in Shubra El Kheima, unleashed a long list of shortcomings of Mubarak, from the lack of bulbs in the streetlights to the closure of factories.

"We have many problems. There's poverty and ignorance. We are dependent on the West," he said.

But when he went into the polling station yesterday, he said, could not bear to vote against his president.

"If your father does something wrong, you will do your best to forgive him and try to defend him," he said.

He did not trust Mubarak's challengers.

"They use sweet words to deceive people," Mahmoud said.

Other voters who cast their ballots at a primary school in Shubra El Kheima found something worthwhile in the opposition candidates and voted against Mubarak, although many were afraid of retribution for abandoning their president.

Turnout appeared to be light among the 32.5 million Egyptians registered to vote, a reflection of the apathy among voters who do not believe the election will solve their problems. In a polling station in Darb El Ahmar, a Cairo neighborhood, just 30 out of more than 1,000 registered voters in the district had cast their ballots by 8 p.m., two hours before the polls closed.

Sami Mahmoud, a 24-year-old unemployed resident of Shubra El Kheima, shared his views of the Mubarak regime, nervously.

Young want change

"For 24 years, there's been economic depression and human rights violations," he says. "All the young generation wants change here."

"I have to take money from my parents. That's what everyone does," said Mahmoud, who planned to vote for Ayman Nour.

Nour, 40, is an energetic member of parliament and leader of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party who is thought to be one of the strongest candidates along with Noaman Gomaa of the Wafd, the oldest opposition party.

Reports of election irregularities were frequent yesterday, prompting Nour to charge that they "are not fair at all. There are no fair elections taking place."

"We accept only the results of free and fair elections, and we won't accept results of rigged elections," he told reporters yesterday.

In Shubra El Kheima, few of the election laws appeared to be enforced. Although the campaign season had officially ended Sunday, trucks and cars mounted with loudspeakers and posters of Mubarak plied the streets, encouraging residents to support the president.

Inside the polling station, an excited Mubarak supporter was allowed to stand within inches of the voting booths, loudly proclaiming his love for his president. Another man wandered through the polling station planting kisses on a photo of his president. No election officials asked them to leave.

The polling booth, a table with a pink tablecloth and blue ballpoint pen placed on top, was positioned at the end of a classroom below larger-than-life visages of Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne.

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