CAIRO â€” From deep in Egypt’s south to the nation’s Mediterranean shores hundreds of kilometres to the north, everyone knows that it’s all but a formality for Hosni Mubarak to win next month’s presidential election.
Such apathy is routine given Egypt’s long record of electoral fraud. Yet surprisingly, many in this nation of some 72 million people are not all that frustrated.
Many are taking heart from a growing sense that a window of freedom has opened and that genuine change, while not around the corner, could finally arrive.
They are looking beyond the vote to a longer term struggle to gain political power, beginning with parliamentary elections scheduled for November.
“The next six-year presidential term should be a transitional period to introduce reforms,” said prominent historian Yunan Labib Rizk, who regularly contributes to the Cairo daily Ahram. “We will fight for change, but we cannot change what has been going on for 50 years over a short period of time.” These expectations are fuelled by a growing feeling that the regime has weakened, no longer able to control the nation as it has in the past. It has abandoned its longtime ban on street protests and personal criticism of Mubarak and his family.
A string of deadly terror attacks since last October has shattered the notion that the political violence of the 1990s had ended. Also, the abduction and execution in July of Egypt’s ambassador to Iraq by militants in Baghdad showed the regime crippled in the face of a crisis.
Concerns over Mubarak’s health and his succession are feeding the uncertainty in a nation where rulers put stability above all else. Mubarak is 77 but generally fit for his age, and he hasn’t named a deputy since taking office in 1981. Many believe he would be succeeded by his son, Gamal, or a general â€” but now there are rising expectations of new blood at the top.
Although deeply sceptical of US intentions, those campaigning for change have been encouraged, sometime even emboldened, by comments from US officials demanding reform.
There’s a great deal to support the guarded optimism felt by some, and much to dismiss it.
The magnitude and pace of the change in the political climate over the past year have been dizzying â€” criticism of Mubarak and his family, once taboo, is now routine in the opposition press. Street protests demanding reform and calling on Mubarak to step down are frequent, and influential groups that for years avoided confronting authorities have entered the fray.
Reform campaigners say change will come from sustained pressure on the regime, with the help of outside pressure and rights groups.
“There is a social dynamic now in place and in action that nothing can stop or take us back to the way things were,” declared Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a senior leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and oldest Islamic group.
Egypt’s authoritarian ruler for nearly 25 years, Mubarak has contributed to these expectations, pledging to cede some of his office’s overwhelming powers to the legislature and the Cabinet if he wins a new term in the September 7 vote.
He’s also promising far-reaching reforms, jobs, cheap housing, wage hikes, more schools and hospitals in a slick election campaign that has blitzed Cairo’s streets with billboards showing a businesslike Mubarak in a shirt and a tie, but no jacket.
But only a few have faith in these promises. Most expect only cosmetic changes to deflect pressure from the United States, Egypt’s main outside backer since the mid-1970s, and to head off the embarrassment of charges of human rights abuses before the vote.
It’s difficult to imagine Mubarak, for example, giving up what could pass for a modern day version of the reverence shown to ancient Egyptian kings.
The influential state media, loyal lawmakers and Cabinet ministers have elevated him to the rank of prophets or even gods â€” someone who can do no wrong or a leader with endless wisdom. Libraries, hospitals, housing projects and schools have been named after him or his wife, Suzanne.
Perhaps with the perception of Mubarak as a modern-day pharaoh in mind, his campaign is focusing on humanising him, airing a video of him and his wife talking about how they met and how the couple managed on his small salary as a young air force officer.
But many feel Mubarak is isolated and out of touch with the grim realities of Egypt’s poor majority.
“There are so many injustices that I sometime wonder whether he knows anything about it,” lamented Mahmoud Abu Houta, a 50-year-old truck driver from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria as he sipped a coffee in the city’s famous Manshiya Square.
“But Mubarak is the one we know. We take him as he is, the good and the bad.”
Fathi Azmi, a retired civil servant, has been a member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party since its inception nearly 30 years ago. Girgis Shoukri, personnel manager in a government hospital, belongs to the opposition Wafd party, whose leader Noaman Gomaa is one of Mubarak’s two main challengers in the election.
Both men are Christian Copts and live in the small town of Bahgoura about 500 kilometres south of Cairo.
They represent the town, which has a population of 35,000, in the district’s local council.
Azmi, 65, has served on the 102-seat council since 1979.
Shoukri is a first-term member, elected in 2001 to become the council’s only opposition member.
On a recent morning, they sat with a reporter on the street outside Azmi’s house in Bahgoura, where Christians are the slight majority, and talked politics.
In testimony to Egypt’s new political climate, Shoukri freely criticised Mubarak within earshot of passersby and lavishly praised Gomaa. Azmi generally kept his cool.
Shoukri challenged Azmi, saying, “The winner of the presidential election is already known. They lie to us and say we have a democracy.” “You’re entitled to your opinion,” Azmi replied.
Shoukri said the constitutional amendment that allowed a multi-candidate presidential election for the first time “was phrased in such a way that benefits Mubarak the most.” Azmi told him: “You cannot deny that allowing more than one candidate to run is better than anything we had before.”
“They should have left the right to run for president open to everyone,” Shoukri said.
“It’s a window of freedom that has been opened,” Azmi told Shoukri, who shot back: “More like the eye of a needle I should think.”
Mahmoud Khodeiri is widely credited for launching a campaign by judges demanding an end to electoral fraud, a deeply entrenched practice believed to be encouraged by authorities and blamed for the political apathy keeping Egyptians from voting.
Khodeiri, a 65-year-old senior judge and father of three, said the drive by judges for electoral reform began as far back as the 1980s, but the state’s tight control over local media meant it had gone unnoticed.
Speaking at his Alexandria home, he acknowledged that judges had never been as bold as in the past few months, when they threatened not to supervise voting unless judges were given more authority in monitoring and full independence from the state.
What is significant about the judges’ entry into the fray is that they are highly respected, giving credibility to reform groups that have sprung up in recent months.
“Rigging an election is a sovereign decision that could only come all the way down from the head of state,” Khodeiri told fellow judges in Alexandria in April in an address seen as the spark of the campaign.
“Mr President, Egypt’s judges say to you that any reform will be cosmetic and even worsen matters unless it’s based on free elections,” he told judges from across the nation in May.
This is dangerous talk in what is in effect a police state.
“It’s my job as a judge to say what’s right,” Khodeiri told the Associated Press. “The judge who is afraid does not deserve to be a judge.” Khodeiri said he wants judges to supervise next month’s vote to gauge the government’s sincerity in promising a clean election.
“Our struggle for more reform will not stop there.” Mohammed Habib, a geology professor who studied at the University of Missouri-Rolla, speaks the new language of the Muslim Brotherhood â€” freedom and reform.
No longer does the Brotherhood want to act alone. Instead, it’s working to find common ground with opposition parties, civil society groups and reform movements.
Brotherhood supporters have joined others in street protests, a decision that has proved costly: Some 3,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested in batches since early spring, of whom 100 remain in custody, including senior leaders.
“It’s our strength that makes the government take a hardline stance on us,” said Habib, the Brotherhood’s second-in-command, from behind his desk at the group’s headquarters, a modest apartment in Cairo’s middle-class Rhoda district.
Habib, like others in the group, dismissed suggestions there has been a change of direction by the Brotherhood, which for decades said little in public besides: “Islam is the solution.” Genuine reform, he said, must be an internal product. “If it comes from outside, those who give it can also take it away,” said Habib, who spent more than six of the past 25 years in jail.
“The Bush administration looks out for its interests and nothing else. Why should I begin a dialogue with the Americans? What will be next? Accepting same-sex marriages or adopting moral permissiveness?”