In a dusty market in this sleepy Suez Canal town, Egyptians crowd around to see an unprecedented sight: A politician campaigning for president, standing in donkey dung.
Appealing for votes in Egypt's first multicandidate presidential elections, Ayman Nour shakes hands with fruit sellers, kisses babies, and gives rare face time to the downtrodden.
"Someone like him, running for president, coming here - no one would expect it," says Ahmed Hassan, a chicken farmer at the market. "This place is for the miserable and the poor."
The leader of the liberal Tomorrow Party, Mr. Nour is the most prominent of nine candidates challenging the reelection of Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 24 years.
Most expect Mr. Mubarak to secure another six-year term easily on Sept. 7, and critics contend that these elections are yet another staged performance to placate domestic and international calls for democracy. But Egyptians are enraptured by the unfolding process, and, for the first time, are discussing their right to choose who rules them. Intended or not, the process is signaling a shift in the country's collective mind-set.
"The people on the street are so keen to know what's happening, but they are still afraid to approach us," says Gemila Ismail, Nour's wife. "All this has happened in five months. We never even thought we would have elections, so think about this for a simple Egyptian."
The changes are largely seen to be the work of the ruling National Democratic Party's so-called reformers, the same gang of media-savvy officials who are also at the helm of Mubarak's reelection campaign. They are young, smartly dressed, fluent English speakers, many of them have degrees from the West's leading universities. Convincing voters to support their candidate seems of secondary concern to their campaign. The far more daunting task is to convince the international community that these elections will truly be free and fair.
"Some people are still skeptical about this experience, so we are trying to assure them that this is serious, that this is real change," says Mohamed Kamal, a leading Mubarak campaign official who has a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and once spent a year working as a US congressional staffer.
With US pressure for reform mounting, the public face of Egypt's authoritarian government has undergone a significant makeover in the past week. State television, once all but off limits to the opposition, has begun giving equal air time to each candidate. Government newspapers, traditional citadels of regime propaganda, are publicizing the election platforms of Mubarak's opponents.
At opposition campaign rallies in Cairo and outlying governorates, the massive security forces, long a mainstay at public gatherings, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, a handful of traffic police escort the candidates and their caravans through traffic, and help block off streets so marchers can proceed peacefully.
To skeptics, however, the increased margin of freedom is not designed to ensure fair elections, but is simply another tenet of the government's campaign.
"The government's message is not directed at the Egyptian people, and is not about voting for Mubarak," says Magdy Mihana, a leading independent columnist and political pundit. "The message is directed to the outside world that there are elections and that they are free and that there is real competition between more than one candidate."
In the months leading up to the campaign, the regime showed a more sinister face. In January, Nour, the Tomorrow Party leader, was arrested on what were widely believed to be trumped-up forgery charges. He was released 45 days later, but could still face jail time if convicted. On May 25, and again on July 30, gangs of government thugs attacked peaceful antigovernment demonstrators with truncheons.
And the much-heralded constitutional amendment that allowed for these presidential elections put stringent conditions on who could run. Those conditions prevented the Muslim Brotherhood, the only opposition force capable of challenging the ruling party machine, from fielding a candidate.
The Brotherhood, thousands of whose members have been jailed and released in recent months, encouraged their rank and file on Sunday to participate in the elections, a move seen as a lending an air of legitimacy to the elections. Though the Brotherhood denounced Mubarak, their statement has fueled rumors that the technically banned Islamist organization is cooperating with the government in exchange for increased seats in parliamentary elections later this year.
The government appointed election commission has rejected requests by international election observers and local civil society organizations to supervise the elections. Campaign officials are stressing that, as in past elections, Egypt's judges will suffice to ensure the legitimacy of the process. Many of those same judges, however, have admitted that past elections have been badly manipulated, despite their oversight.
For Ahmed Sayyid, a high school philosophy teacher, such machinations "cast doubt on the elections."
"We have international observers for soccer, so why shouldn't we bring impartial international observers for politics?" asks Mr. Sayyid.
With a government salary of roughly $50 a month, the thoughtful and soft-spoken Sayyid is only slightly better off than the 14 million Egyptians who earn a dollar a day or less. Still, watching the Nour campaign procession rumble down the main street of a provincial capital, Sayyid calls himself a "pessoptimist."
"All this may fail, and there may be no change," he says. "But it's still a pretty step."
• Born in 1964 in Mansoura, Egypt.
• Studied law at Mansoura University.
• Elected to Parliament in 1995.
• Arrested in January on charges, widely seen as trumped up, of forgery. Released 45 days later after his case won international attention.
• Platform: To rule for two years only, restore civil liberties, hold free elections.