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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 / September 8, 2005


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.

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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.

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.