CAIRO â€” Five years ago, sociologist and activist Saadeddin Ibrahim broke a taboo by publicly criticising Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Hours later, he was in jail.
“Everybody said that was the red line I crossed,” said Ibrahim, who wrote in a magazine article that leaders of Arab republics, including Egypt, wanted their sons to take power and proposed they turn their states into monarchies.
But with Mubarak now the first Egyptian president to face competition for his job in elections, the red lines surrounding the 77-year-old have started to vanish.
“It’s no longer a novelty to talk about him or his son â€” everybody is,” said Ibrahim, who after a long legal battle was cleared of charges including illegally accepting foreign funds.
“More and more people are speaking out. More and more people are getting involved and more of them are willing to demonstrate.”
Few Egyptians expect the September 7 vote to bring change at the top. But campaigning for the presidency, following unprecedented street protests against Mubarak this year, is further weakening the immunity of a post occupied unchallenged by both Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat until their deaths.
“The whole process that we are living through is historical. It is very healthy. Finally, the stagnation is over,” said former opposition member of parliament Mona Makram-Ebeid. “The ball has started to roll.”
The elections have forced political debate among opposition groups on whether to take part, raised the profile of opposition candidates who are not boycotting and encouraged Mubarak to address Egypt’s 72 million people more directly than ever.
“You feel that he’s talking to you. It wasn’t like that before â€” he would give speeches on official occasions. There’s a new atmosphere,” transport worker Salah Abdel Monem said.
Mubarak, who has ruled since 1981, has given near daily speeches at public rallies organised by his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in a campaign that has focused on job creation and the economy.
But he has preserved some of his presidential aloofness, giving no interviews or news conference and refusing to take part in a face-to-face debate with his rivals.
While presenting the campaign’s economic programme at one rally, government minister and NDP official Mahmoud Mohieldin was reproached by a Mubarak supporter who said there was no need for the president to lay out his plans for the future.
“He said: ‘Leave that to the prime minister… leave that to people like you.'” Mohieldin said. “The president is perceived as being above that,” he told reporters.
“People are not used to seeing the president subject to criticism and this is part of the future of the process and this is the way to go,” NDP campaign spokesman Mohamed Kamal added.
But it will take more than campaigning to convince some Egyptians that the first presidential election is more than a masquerade designed to silence US calls on Cairo to allow more political freedoms.
“After 24 years of this regime, people are not going to change their ideas of the presidency because they have multiple candidates around Mubarak, all of whom are weaker than him,” teacher Adel Abdel Monem said.
Wael Nawara of the opposition Ghad Party, whose leader Ayman Nur is contesting the election, said people were withholding judgement to see if the elections would be free and fair. “The way the president presents his plans for a better future empowers the people. But it needs to sink in and realise tangible results,” he said.
While Mubarak is expected to win, with critics saying the rules are skewed hugely in his favour, one widely read anonymous Internet commentator says he may have set in motion a process that could eventually bring change.
“Direct presidential elections are not a magnanimous nor astute gesture by Mubarak, but a huge, reluctant concession, one whose long-term consequences neither he nor his successors can anticipate or control,” Baheyya wrote on her website.
Nur cries foul over banned TV campaign clip
CAIRO (AFP) â€” Egypt’s presidential electoral commission has banned leading opposition candidate Ayman Nur’s campaign television spot on the grounds the theme song had been plagiarised, Nur’s spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Gamila Ismail branded the move â€œone of the dirtiest tricks of the campaignâ€ for the September 7 presidential poll and blamed President Hosni Mubarak’s camp, alleged by the opposition to hold sway over the electoral commission.
â€œWe can’t start our television campaign because the committee says it has received a complaint from someone who claims property of the song. We are in deep trouble now because the song can be heard throughout the clip,â€ she said.
The song was commissioned by Nur’s Ghad Party to a young Nubian singer called Khaled Yusef but the commission alleges that it draws heavily on another song by poet Kawthar Mustafa used in a film by the famed Yusef Chahine.
Commission official Ahmed Selim confirmed that the clip had not been approved after Mustafa and the singer who interpreted the song â€” Mohammed Munir â€” filed a complaint.
â€œEven if this was the case, the matter should go to court, they have no right to stop our television campaign,â€ Ismail said.
Nur has been the most virulent of Mubarak’s challengers in the campaign and has repeatedly accused the regime of trying to undermine his election bid.
He is currently on trial for what he says are trumped up charges of forgery aimed at discrediting his campaign.
â€œRaise your voice/End your silence/Talk to us. Countrymen, your opinion matters to us/ Be courageous/Speak your words/Continue your path to freedom,â€ goes the Nur campaign song.
â€œWhat are you waiting for? Kefaya! Your wishes can still come true.â€
Kefaya means â€œEnoughâ€ in Arabic and is the name of a movement which has staged a string of anti-Mubarak protests in recent months and has ties to the Ghad Party although it officially called for a boycott of the election.
Ismail charged that the challenge to Nur’s main video clip â€” which was due to be aired at prime time on public television â€” was deliberately launched when the Ghad campaign embarked on a three-day trip to southern Egypt.