Egypt's next vote: How different?

President Mubarak hints at another presidential term in a major TV event.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a carefully produced six-hour, three-part television interview, President Hosni Mubarak made an unprecedented pitch to Egyptians about his place in history - a pitch that in every way suggests his presidential campaign ahead of September elections has begun.

Yet at the culmination of the biography, promoted all week on state-run television, President Mubarak said he hadn't decided whether he'd run again, and hinted that his decision will hinge on whether his "people" press him to continue his rule.

But analysts say Mubarak's scripted interview indicates he is in fact determined to extend his 24-year rule - resisting growing calls for democratic reform at home and throughout the Middle East.

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There is one big change this time around. All the elections Mubarak has faced prior to this one have been referendums. Under Egypt's current system, the country's parliament nominates one candidate, and Egyptians are invited to ratify its choice. This year, Mubarak has promised to allow a competitor, reflecting growing US discomfort with his authoritarian ways.

"There were a couple of times in the interview where he seemed to slip and indicate that he was going to run,'' says Josh Stacher, a Cairo-based doctoral candidate at St. Andrews in Scotland. Stacher points to Mubarak's answer when asked how the election would be different this year: "It's not just going to be me; there will be two candidates."

To Egypt's fledgling opposition, this is unacceptable - and they say signs of the government's real intentions were visible on Wednesday. The mostly liberal Kifaya, or "Enough" movement, tried to hold demonstrations in 14 cities on Wednesday, but many of them were disrupted by security forces, with 47 activists arrested, according to Kifaya leaders.

At their demonstration in Cairo, which was carried out largely unhindered, a rowdy crowd of about 500 protesters attacked Mubarak with the chant: "Did you see the comedy yesterday? Directed by Sharif Arafa, music by Amar Sherai, and staring the dictator Hosni Mubarak." Mr. Arafa and Mr. Sherai are among Egypt's most prominent directors and composers, respectively.

"Mubarak wasn't speaking to the people last night - they weren't interested in more of the same,'' says Samer Sulaiman, a Kifaya supporter who says he had to argue with the owner of a coffee shop Wednesday night to change the channel from a football match to Mubarak's speech. "He's not capable of ruling anymore ... they had so much buildup and then he had nothing new to say. I think the program has increased people's anger at Mubarak and we're going to start picking up support."

The protesters also attacked the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, who has been increasingly in the public eye here. The opposition thinks Mubarak would like his son to eventually take over his leadership position, though he came up only once during the interviews.

Mubarak was categorical on Egypt's Emergency laws that have prevailed since Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981. The laws are frequently used to stifle demonstrations and dissent. He said the laws are used only to fight terrorism and aren't a threat to individual freedoms.

"Ending the emergency laws would be the most helpful thing in Egypt for bringing democracy,'' says Mohammed Akef, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and most cohesive political movement. The interview was conducted before Mubarak's television program.

"There is an illusion being created that Egypt is opening up, but that's all it is. The mentality of the regime remains very far from democratic,'' says Mr. Akef, who has spent time in jail for his political views and whose political organization is technically illegal, but tolerated.

Were there a political organization with the clout to really challenge Mubarak's rule inside Egypt, it would be the Brotherhood, which once had ties to terrorism but renounced violence in the 1970s. The Islamist organization wants Islam to be the basis for the state, but also says it's committed to the democratic process. Wednesday night, President Mubarak ruled out legalizing the group to take part directly in politics.

"No country in the world allows parties based on religion to exist,'' he said.

"They're free to join existing parties if they want to participate."

But while he says he's undecided, every other aspect of the interview indicates that Mubarak believes he's the perfect choice to lead Egypt.

Mr. Stacher says while Mubarak's candidacy is "almost certain," his refusal to be clear on this point is useful in keeping the opposition disorganized. "If you don't lay things out in a clear way it keeps the opposition guessing," he says.

"There's always a chance he may not run, though that seems highly unlikely, given the style of the interview. The way he defined the presidency, he presented himself as the only person who can fulfill all the characteristics of a president," he says.

In recent weeks, other signs have surfaced of an accelerating campaign for the president. State television has aired other programs on Mubarak's achievements. And the singer Shaaban Abdul Rehim, a former laundryman who became famous with the hit about a former foreign minister called "I hate Israel and Love Amr Moussa," released a song praising Mubarak and urging him to run again.

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