One of the major changes in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, who is about to start his second term as President, has been a gradual opening of the political process. Ironically, though, the greater freedom of expression now allowed has made the government the target of increasingly vocal criticism.
A popular play at Cairo's National Theater reflects this irony. The play, ``Two Underground,'' is about a man and a woman who fall into a sewer. They are saved because the sewer is part of a government program to build a new drainage system and is to be visited, unexpectedly, by the governor of Cairo.
The play takes swipes at the governor, whose lightning visits to public projects are like those of President Mubarak, and it is harshly critical of the regime for caring more about official visits than it does for Egypt's people. Still, ``This play is the direct result of the liberalization of Mubarak,'' concedes playwright Muhammad Salmawy.
In the run-up to today's nationwide presidential referendum, in which Mubarak is the sole candidate, political debate has intensified. Many critics agree that Mubarak has allowed freer expression, but they say he has failed to squarely face the two main threats to Egypt's stability: its troubled economy and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
Some critics also lament that Mubarak and his party have failed to define a new ideology that could capture people's imagination and derail fundamentalism. But others say that the President's eschewing of ideology is a relief for Egyptians, who had become weary of the sudden swing, under late President Anwar Sadat in the '70s, from pro-Soviet socialism and war with Israel to pro-Western capitalism and peace with the Jewish state.
``Sadat was government by shock and surprise,'' says political scientist Earl Sullivan of the American University of Cairo.
``Mubarak is steady as you go. It's partly his personality and partly almost deliberate dullness,'' Dr. Sullivan says. ``His pitch is continuity. He's uninterested in ideology.''
It seems unlikely that Mubarak will fill the ideological void. His main constituents - the military, business, and middle class - dislike the idea of change.
Under Egypt's Constitution, the People's Assembly (parliament) nominates the sole candidate who runs uncontested in a referendum. Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), which holds more than a two-thirds majority in parliament, nominated him several months ago.
Though Mubarak's re-election is assured, he has been holding rallies all around the country to discuss his presidency and goals.
``[The NDP] are afraid people won't go to the polls,'' says leftist writer Muhammad Sayed Ahmad. ``For them, the percentage of presence is important.''
Though Mr. Sayed Ahmad and others criticize Mubarak, they concede he has brought welcome changes. When Mubarak took the reins in 1981, he moved to relax the political atmosphere. First, he released the more than 1,000 political prisoners his predecessor Sadat had jailed before his assassination. Mubarak moved Egypt back to the Arab fold by reconciling with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Soon after, Jordan restored diplomatic ties and the two states tried to revive the Mideast peace process.
Mubarak re-instituted a freer press. Although the rights to organize, demonstrate, and strike still are limited, free expression has flourished. In 1984 and last April, Egypt held relatively clean multi-party elections. ``Democratization and the free press were no mean feat,'' a Western diplomat says.
In addition, Mubarak won for Egypt a sorely needed stand-by credit arrangement from the International Monetary Fund and is rescheduling part of the nation's $40 billion foreign debt.
``Mubarak has succeeded in removing the heat but not in uprooting the forces that caused the heat,'' Syed Ahmad says.
Egypt's economy took a rapid downturn in 1985, when oil revenues, Suez Canal tolls, and tourism plunged. Instead of instituting reforms to stimulate productivity and cut back the public sector, the government resorted to incremental price rises.
Critics say the stand-by credit only postpones the day when austerity measures will be required. A sluggish economy with millions of low-paid public workers and college graduates who can't find jobs fuels the frustration that swells Islamic fundamentalist ranks, they say.
The main issues during Mubarak's second term seem to be:
Whether the fundamentalists' push for Sharia (Islamic law) will succeed, bringing far-reaching change to Egyptian life.
Whether democratic freedoms will be enhanced or, as some fear, crushed if Islamic extremists step up violence.
Critics say the government's handling of fundamentalism has been unimaginative. So far, the regime has taken a two-part approach. Using emergency laws that some analysts say amount to martial law, it periodically rounds up Islamic activists.
But the government also apparently aims to divide the Islamic movement by bringing moderates into the system. In April elections, the government allowed the theoretically banned Muslim Brotherhood to join two opposition parties in a so-called Islamic alliance. Religiously-based parties are banned, but the alliance adopted a religious platform - implementing Sharia. The alliance is now the assembly's largest opposition bloc.
``The irony,'' says Dr. Sullivan, ``is that there's a considerable amount of freedom of expression, but Egypt still is under martial law. The government is saying `You can participate, but according to our rules.''
The government believes the strategy will isolate extremists. But critics say the assembly's heavy Islamic presence will shape the national agenda.