Egyptians vote in limited brush with democracy

A Mubarak win is undisputed, but the election created a rare space for dissent.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The bus is rolling through the narrow dirt roads of Dar El-Salam, a down-at-heel Cairo neighborhood, and men and women are running to catch it, afraid they'll miss voting in Egypt's first presidential election.

The man with well-oiled hair cramming them into the rusty machine - festooned with portraits of President Hosni Mubarak - isn't collecting fare. Instead, he's gathering ID cards to be checked against voter rolls. Those will be returned, with 20 Egyptian pounds ($3.20), after his riders cast their votes - for the incumbent.

Wednesday's vote is being hailed in some circles as a major democratic opening in the Arab world's largest state. Indeed, it has cracked a rare window to criticize Mr. Mubarak's 24-year rule.

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But it remains to be seen if the regime will be changed by this brush with presidential politics. Though the outcome was guaranteed, Mubarak and his team ran a Western-style campaign for the first time, even granting an interview to an independent newspaper.

"The concerns of the masses and the ordinary man in the street should be the main concern of any person in a position of leadership,'' President Mubarak told Al-Mesri Al-Yom newspaper, while reiterating a campaign promise to increase the minimum wage by 100 percent and to create 4.5 million new jobs. "I know exactly what the concerns of the people are, their problems, suffering, and expectations."

"On the one hand, the election itself is a bit of a joke,'' says an activist from the Kifaya, or Enough, movement, which organized a rowdy demonstration urging voters to boycott the election and criticizing Mubarak. "But it's also at least forcing him to stand up and be responsible for the government's policies. It shows he's not above criticism, and that could eventually change the system in ways they don't expect."

But avoiding change, or perhaps managing change, seemed to be at the heart of the election the Mubarak campaign - led by his son Gamal - organized Wednesday, with his National Democratic Party (NDP) getting out the vote and publicizing their candidate around the polls.

At a polling station in a Dar el-Salam - an unplanned central Cairo neighborhood where about 1 million people live in ramshackle brick tenements today - men at two blaring speaker systems competed with each other to shout the most effusive praise of Mubarak.

Rented NDP buses rolled up past three 10-foot posters of the president wearing aviator sunglasses and looking very fit for his 77 years, while NDP poll-workers in green vests ushered them inside. Other NDP officials hovered just outside, handing out slips of paper reminding residents to vote for Mubarak.

There was no evidence of Egypt's nine other presidential candidates. Ahmed Zaid, a poll observer in Dar El-Salam for Ayman Nour, the Mubarak opponent who has campaigned most vigorously against the incumbent, said two Nour supporters handing out papers urging voters to choose their man were arrested and taken away by police earlier in the day.

He said the Nour posters in the area were all ripped down by NDP members earlier in the morning, as were posters supporting Noaman Gomaa, the only other high-profile candidate on the ballot. "I'm here because it's my right to demand democracy, but it's clear there's major fraud going on," charged Mr. Zaid.

Mubarak's record is shaky in many respects. Since he took power, Egypt's national debt has more than tripled; the Egyptian pound has lost 88 percent of its value against the dollar; and unemployment is now estimated at 25 percent.

Government corruption is also widespread. In August, the Al-Osboa newspaper published documents alleging to show that Ibrahim Nafie, who until July ran the government press group Al-Ahram and is also a close confidant of Mubarak, had stolen more than $100 million during his tenure.

But there is also real support for the president. Many Egyptians remember the ruinous wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, and are grateful that Mubarak has kept the country largely out of foreign entanglements. It's a theme he's played up in his campaign, obliquely pointing at the chaos in neighbors like Iraq as a potential outcome if he doesn't keep a steady hand on the helm. "Mubarak has talked about peace, he's given us bread, and he's promised to create jobs,'' says Adbel Nabi, a 63-year-old electrician who shares a room with his wife and six of his children. "We'll see if he meets his promises, but at least we know him. These other candidates, we don't know them at all."

Many businessmen - cafe owners, small traders, and the like - say they make sure to pay for Mubarak posters at their businesses, and to turn out for the president on election days, saying some who don't turn out have suddenly experienced problems with the tax office in the past.

Omar Fatah, in a fresh T-shirt with Mubarak's beaming face on it, a gift for coming to the polls this morning, is typical of the folks struggling in Dar El-Salam. The 22-year-old - whose nose is marred by fresh scars from a recent street fight - is part of a small gaggle of young men in the same T-shirts hanging around the voting booths.

"Mubarak is my father,'' Mr. Fatah practically shouts, exuberantly explaining his presence. But his demeanor changes as he explains his situation, and his view of politics in general. "If we bring in another president, he'll rob us. With Mubarak, he's already robbed us so hopefully he's satisfied."

Asked what he makes of the president's campaign promises, he casts his eyes to the floor. "Look, I have no job, I live with nine people in a three-room apartment, and have no prospects. What can I do? Should I take a knife and stab people and rob them? All we can do is wait for help from God."

Asked why he earlier showed enthusiasm for Mubarak, he regains his sharpness. "I wasn't given any money to be here."

But others were. Outside a cafe on one of Dar El-Salam's only paved streets, men sip tea and wait for the Mubarak Express to come through for another run. One grumbles that the local party boss, who ordered an aide to "gather more people" is getting 50 pounds a head, but is only passing on 20 pounds to voters.

"I'm a poor man, why shouldn't I take a little money for this,'' asks one of the men, who asked that his name not be used. "It's not like things are going to change."

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