CAIRO â€” Dabbing sweat from his brow with a neatly folded white handkerchief, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak plods on with his election campaign speech, promising building land for the young and more investment in agriculture.
He starts with the ritual homage to the history of the town he is visiting and ends with the invocation â€œGod preserve Egypt,â€ just as US politicians close with â€œGod bless America.â€
Behind him sit two rows of young Egyptians in green Mubarak T-shirts, silent props in a performance which has adopted many elements of American campaigning, but with none of the tension and dynamic which arises from a serious contest.
In fact, with temperatures in the high 30Â¼C, the weather’s the only thing making Mubarak sweat as he cruises towards a fifth six-year term, despite the fact September 7’s election allows rival candidates for the first time.
Since the 19 days of campaigning began on August 17, Mubarak has not answered a single question in public nor mentioned any of the nine candidates running against him.
Instead of hecklers, he has to calm down overzealous party loyalists shouting out slogans of allegiance, warning them of the health risks of excessive activity in the heat.
â€œNot enough, we’re with you to the end!â€ they shouted in the Nile Delta town of Mansoura on Sunday â€” a dig at the protest movement which has tried to push Mubarak out of office with the slogan â€œEnough.â€
His ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) turned down requests that Mubarak take part in a presidential debate. An NDP official said the Mubarak campaign saw no need to give the opposition free publicity.
Aloof from the fray and insulated by the trappings of presidential power, Mubarak reads out his written speeches in literary Arabic, occasionally making an aside or adding a brief anecdote in the language of the people.
But he has taken off his tie to present a more relaxed image and the campaign, run by a group of Westernised NDP economic liberals close to his son Gamal, has set up photo opportunities where Mubarak can interact with some real Egyptians. Last week, he dropped in on farmer Kamal Al Maraghi and his wife Sanaa at their farm on reclaimed desert land on the western edge of the Nile Delta. They drank tea together on the porch outside what the state media called the couple’s hut.
But when the independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm went back, its reporters found the hut was gone, its purpose served.
Many Egyptians say they are torn between amused interest in the novelty of competitive elections and a suspicion that it is all show, promising no change of any substance.
Leading NDP member Mahmoud Mohieldin, minister of investment and part of the campaign team, says the change is real.
â€œThere are things which no one can restrain. Once human freedom is unleashed and rules for competition are laid down for the highest office in the state, then there’s no going back,â€ he told Al Masry Al Youm in an interview.
Hisham Kassem, a liberal activist close to opposition Ghad Party candidate Ayman Nour, said the Mubarak government was not committed to reform but the election campaign could have a â€œtrickle-downâ€ by emboldening Egyptians to challenge authority.
â€œMubarak doesn’t believe that the soldiers can choose the generals. But when you have Ayman Nour walking down the street and people shouting `Here comes the president,’ that has an impact. It was unthinkable a few years ago,â€ he told Reuters.
The real test will come on election day, which should show whether the campaign has caught the imagination of Egyptians and whether the ruling party has abandoned old practices such as stuffing ballot boxes and harassing the opposition.
Muslim Brotherhood number 2 released
CAIRO (AFP) â€” Egyptian authorities released the second-in-command of the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood movement after detaining him for three months, official sources said Sunday.
High state security prosecutor Hisham Badawi ordered the release of Mahmoud Ezzat Saturday on 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($345) bail, judicial sources said.
Eight other Muslim Brothers were released at the same time, the sources added.
“He was freed yesterday and is now in his home,” senior Brotherhood official Mohammed Habib told AFP.
Ezzat, a 64-year-old professor of medicine at Zagazig University in northern Egypt, is a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office â€” the organisation’s highest body.
Sentenced to nine years in prison under former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1964, a military tribunal also condemned Ezzat to three years behind bars in 1995. He was charged both times of endangering state security and plotting to topple the regime.
“Mahmoud Ezzat and other members of the Brotherhood… were planning series of meetings aimed at restarting the activities of the banned movement,” the official MENA news agency said.
The agency said propaganda literature promoting the Muslim Brotherhood was found when Ezzat was arrested on May 22.
When asked whether he thought the release was politically motivated and related to the September 7 presidential poll, Habib said: “Whether it is or not, that’s their business. We stick to our position.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition group in Egypt and was courted by several of the 10 candidates running in the upcoming poll, the country’s first multiparty presidential election.
The movement issued a statement on August 21 calling on its followers to take part in the vote but urging them not to cast their ballot for incumbent Hosni Mubarak, whose regime has systematically cracked down on the movement.
“All Brothers have to realise that we cannot support an oppressor or cooperate with a corrupt person or a dictator,” said the statement containing the group’s voting advice.
“It is unthinkable for us to decide to back Mubarak,” the movement’s supreme leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, has also said.
The Islamist movement claims an active membership of two million and the support of another three million nationwide. The government tolerates some of its activities but sporadically turns up the heat on its activists.
“Forty-eight Brothers are still being detained,” including another senior leader Issam Aryan, Habib said, calling for their immediate release.
However, Attorney General Maher Abdelwahed announced on June 18 that there were only 37 members of the movement still behind bars.
Ezzat is also the deputy chairman of the Egyptian Association of Muslim Physicians, whose charity work has widely contributed to the movement’s popularity in impoverished areas.