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Why Uganda's 25-year ruler is unlikely to face Egypt-style protests

Ugandans are expected to extend President Yoweri Museveni's 25-year rule in Friday's election. More voters seem to want change, but apathy and fear of brutal crackdowns prevent unrest.

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Uganda 'needs' authoritarianism?

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Having come to power in 1986, after a grueling five-year civil war, President Museveni has long argued that a country like Uganda needs a strong authority figure to rule it and protect it from the many ethnic, linguistic, and regional differences that threaten to pull it apart. That's just what he's done, he says, and voters have rewarded him for it.

Indeed, voters are highly unlikely to vote Museveni out of power, but this should not be taken as a sign of the president's popularity, says Nelson Kasfir, a political scientist and Uganda expert at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

"The problem is that when people are afraid, and when the opposition is weak, they are unlikely to act," says Mr. Kasfir. "Museveni's patronage system has reached a point where the people say, 'Oh my God, I don't see how this system can be dislodged in the future,' so they don't oppose it anymore."

Patience wearing thin

Veteran opposition candidate Dr. Besigye still pins his hope on the waning patience of Ugandan voters. With Museveni controlling the electoral commission and voter registry, these elections are already fundamentally flawed, he says.

After failing to unseat Museveni in the last two presidential elections, and failing to get the results annulled in court, Besigye says he'll be considering other options, including possible street protests. He even drew parallels with Tunisian and Egyptian-style popular revolts.

"As long as people are oppressed for a long time, as long as they become hopeless in all processes, the political process and government process, then a time comes when their anger explodes," Besigye said, pointing to antigovernment riots in Kampala in 2009 in which at least 25 people were killed.

There hasn't been a peaceful transition of power in Uganda in almost 50 years of independence, he adds, with every leader needing to be "bombed" out of office.

Besigye knows Museveni better than most. In the early 1980s, when Museveni was a lean guerrilla commander berating African leaders for hanging onto power too long, Besigye was his personal physician. Now he says his former ally is clinging to power and Museveni is convinced that no one else "can do what he does."

But Besigye also says Museveni has a "sense of self-preservation" and could step down without violence or "maybe with a little bit of violence."

This is considered wishful thinking in Uganda. "In Uganda the conventional wisdom is that something like that can't happen," says Golooba-Mutebi, "but then they said the same about Egypt and, as they say, a week is a long time in politics."

Just to be on the safe side, however, Museveni's goverment has ordered telecoms to intercept text messages with words or phrases including "Egypt," "bullet," and "people power."

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