Mubarak Campaigns, but Does That Mean Democracy?

New York Times
Published: August 26, 2005

MINYA, Egypt, Aug. 25 - A hot breeze blew through the reed hut just on the banks of the Nile yesterday. President Hosni Mubarak, his shirt collar opened, sat casually inside as a local man recited a poem and the man's wife served the president a glass of tea.

For television viewers around Egypt, it looked as though Mr. Mubarak had visited a village to mingle with its people and for them, in turn, to offer him their praise. "I swear to God, oh Mubarak, that I am in love with you," the man, Mahmoud Fathy, declared through a toothless grin.

But this was a one-time, carefully scripted moment intended to make the president look like a man of the people, part of his campaign for election to a fifth six-year term.

The theater of politics has arrived in Egypt, a country that has never known democracy. But many people are asking what it means that campaign posters are going up and that opposition candidates are criticizing the government. The campaign season - a mere 19 days before the Sept. 7 election - has sparked a debate about whether Egypt's first multicandidate presidential campaign is an honest first step toward a freer and more open political life in Egypt or merely a facade intended to help preserve the power of the old guard.

Those close to the president say that the very act of holding a campaign is a step toward awakening a society that has been politically lethargic for decades, that it will allow the creation of a political class and that it will produce political institutions independent of the government or the ruling National Democratic Party.

The progress can be incremental, and at times seems more about changing attitudes inside Egypt's huge bureaucracy than about promoting democratic values. The very facts that Mr. Mubarak's speeches as a candidate are not broadcast live on state-run television, and that photographers other than those working for the president are permitted to take his picture, are counted by some of his supporters as reforms.

"What is important is the new dynamics existing now in this society," said Muhammad Abdullah, president of Alexandria University and a leading figure in the ruling party. "The idea of competition, and defeating the idea of the pharaoh, will give way to new steps. We are starting a new real era in our life."

But there are many others who say a campaign - no matter how robust - is not to be confused with democracy. The state still controls the news media, and the newspapers have been almost fawning in their coverage of the president. The state controls Al Azhar, the nation's chief religious institution, and the sheik of Al Azhar, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, has publicly sworn his allegiance to Mr. Mubarak.

No one even seems to know just how many people in Egypt are registered to vote. Officials routinely say there are more than 30 million eligible voters, but they cannot say, or at least have not said, how many actually possess the necessary voter card.

"Are they committed to change? The answer is no," said Hisham Kassem, a leader of the Tomorrow Party, which is running a presidential candidate, Ayman Nour. "They have to give the impression of free and fair elections. But practically, they are very far from that."

Since Mr. Mubarak came to power in 1981, after Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists, he has charted a cautious course. But by any account, Egyptians are now seeing and hearing things they have never experienced in their lifetimes, and their leaders are taking incremental steps that are seismic in a society like this.

"He does things one tiny step at a time," Youssef Boutrous Ghali, Egypt's minister of finance, said of the president. "He is not the man to take one bold step. But he is not the one to take this step if he would not let it reach its natural conclusion."

Even George Ishak, a founding member of the movement called Kifaya, which means enough, as in enough of Mr. Mubarak, has acknowledged that Egyptians are experiencing something new - though in his view, insufficient.

"We can't deny that there is a new political dynamic, but it is piecemeal," Mr. Ishak said. "We are against this piecemeal approach to change. There is either change or not change."

In past presidential campaigns, Mr. Mubarak was the only candidate on the ballot. This time he not only paved the way with a constitutional amendment that permitted a multicandidate race (there are nine candidates opposing him), but he has also agreed to behave like a candidate. And that in itself is viewed in the Egyptian context as reform.

But it is hard, after more than two decades in power, for the state, its citizens and its bureaucracy, to treat Mr. Mubarak as a candidate. "With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Mubarak," the carefully screened crowd chanted as he entered a tent on a small island in the Nile to give his campaign speech on Thursday.

"I will donate my organs for you," one man shouted after jumping to his feet and pumping his hand in the air as Mr. Mubarak spoke.

The president was relaxed at the dais. He repeatedly thanked the audience for its support, and at one point tried to stop the "blood and soul" chant, which was routinely shouted during rallies in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, for example.

"There are some people who dislike this whole spirit and blood, or soul and blood business," he told the crowd. "It's better to change it."

He talked about raising teachers' salaries. He talked about the benefit of educating women and allowing them a greater role in civil society. And he talked about working with the people to build a brighter future.

For some it was a message that resonated as forward thinking, as a step toward democracy. For others, the event did not matter. It remained all about the man, a learned response after decades in which all power was vested in one man, and one party.

As soon as the speech was finished, Alaa Hussein rushed toward the stage, but was stopped by plainclothes security officials. He was carrying a large letter mounted in a gold frame. It was written in the blood of local people, and marked with more than 100 bloody thumbprints.

"People cut themselves and used their blood to do this," Mr. Hussein said. "It is a way of showing our allegiance to the president."

Mines Kill 2 Policemen in Sinai

CAIRO, Aug. 25 (Reuters) - Land mines in the Sinai Peninsula killed two Egyptian policemen on Thursday, in the second such blast in two days during a hunt for suspects behind attacks on Sharm el Sheik last month, the Interior Ministry said.

A statement from the ministry did not say whether the mines, at Mount Halal in the northeast region of Sinai, had been laid recently or were left over from past wars with Israel.

But a Sinai security official contended that the mines had been laid by the suspects in the July 23 attacks on the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik that killed at least 64 people.

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