- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

CAIRO - From deep in Egypt’s south to the nation’s Mediterranean shores hundreds of miles to the north, everyone knows that it’s all but a formality for Hosni Mubarak to win the presidential election next week.

Such apathy is routine given Egypt’s long record of electoral fraud. Yet, surprisingly, many in this nation of 78 million people are not all that frustrated.

Many take heart from a growing sense that a window of freedom has opened and that genuine change — while not around the corner — finally could arrive. They look beyond the vote next Wednesday to a long-term struggle to gain political power, beginning with parliamentary elections set for November.

“The next six-year presidential term should be a transitional period to introduce reforms,” said historian Yunan Labib Rizk, a regular contributor to the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram. “We will fight for change, but we cannot change what has been going on for 50 years over a short period of time.”

Changing mind-set

These expectations are fueled by a growing feeling that the regime has weakened and no longer is able to control the nation. It has abandoned its longtime ban on street protests and personal criticism of Mr. Mubarak and his family.

A string of terrorist attacks since October has shattered the notion that the political violence of the 1990s had ended. Also, the abduction and execution in July of Egypt’s ambassador by militants in Baghdad showed the Mubarak regime as crippled in the face of a crisis.

Concern over Mr. Mubarak’s health and his succession is feeding uncertainty in a country where rulers put stability above all else. Mr. Mubarak is 77 but fit for his age, and he hasn’t named a deputy since taking office in 1981. Many thought he would be succeeded by son Gamal or another general, but now there are expectations of real change at the top.

Although skeptical of U.S. intentions, those campaigning for change have been encouraged by comments from American officials demanding reform.

The change in the political climate in the past year has been dizzying: Criticism of Mr. Mubarak and his family, once taboo, is now routine in the opposition press. Street protests demanding reform and calling on the president to step down are frequent, and influential groups that for years avoided confronting authorities have joined the fray.

Campaigners for reform say change will come from sustained pressure on the regime, with the help of outside influences.

“There is a social dynamic now in place and in action that nothing can stop or take us back to the way things were,” said Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a senior leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and oldest Islamic group.

The man they know

Egypt’s authoritarian ruler for nearly a quarter-century, Mr. Mubarak has contributed to these expectations, pledging to cede some of his powers to the legislature and the Cabinet if he wins a new term.

He also promises far-reaching reforms, jobs, cheap housing, wage increases, more schools and hospitals in a slick election campaign, with billboards on Cairo’s streets showing a businesslike Mr. Mubarak in a shirt and a tie, but no jacket.

But only a few believe these promises. Most expect only cosmetic changes to deflect pressure from the United States, Egypt’s main outside backer since the mid-1970s, and to head off the embarrassment of accusations of human rights abuses before the vote.

Perhaps keeping in mind the perception of Mr. Mubarak as a modern-day pharaoh, his campaign is focusing on humanizing him, airing a video of him and his wife, Suzanne, talking about how they met and how the couple managed on his small salary as a young air force officer.

But many feel the president is isolated and out of touch with the realities of Egypt’s poor majority.

“There are so many injustices that I sometimes wonder whether he knows anything about it,” said Mahmoud Abu Houta, 50, a truck driver from Alexandria as he sipped coffee in that Mediterranean city’s famous Manshiya Square.

“But Mubarak is the one we know. We take him as he is, the good and the bad.

Fathi Azmi, a retired civil servant, has been a member of Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party since its inception nearly 30 years ago. Girgis Shoukri, personnel manager in a government hospital, belongs to the opposition Wafd party, whose leader, Noaman Gomaa, is one of the president’s two main challengers on the ballot.

Both men are Christian Copts and live in the small town of Bahgoura about 300 miles south of Cairo. They represent the town, which has a population of 35,000, in the district council.

Mr. Azmi has served on the 102-seat council since 1979. Mr. Shoukri is a first-term member, elected in 2001 to become the council’s only opposition member.

On a recent morning, they sat outside Mr. Azmi’s house in Bahgoura, where Christians are a slight majority, and talked politics.

In testimony to Egypt’s new political climate, Mr. Shoukri, 65, freely criticized Mr. Mubarak within earshot of passers-by and lavishly praised Mr. Gomaa.

He challenged his colleague, saying, “The winner of the presidential election is already known. They lie to us and say we have a democracy.”

“You’re entitled to your opinion,” Mr. Azmi replied, adding, “You cannot deny that allowing more than one candidate to run is better than anything we had before.”

“They should have left the right to run for president open to everyone,” Mr. Shoukri countered.

Judging reform

Mahmoud al-Khodeiri is widely credited for initiating a campaign by judges to end electoral fraud, a deeply entrenched practice thought to be encouraged by authorities and blamed for the political apathy that keeps Egyptians from voting.

Mr. al-Khodeiri, 65, a senior judge and father of three, said the effort by judges for electoral reform began in the 1980s, but the state’s tight control over local press caused it to go unnoticed.

Speaking at his Alexandria home, he acknowledged that judges had never been as bold as in the past few months, threatening not to supervise voting unless the state gave them more authority in monitoring and full independence.

What is significant about the demands is that the judges are highly respected, giving credibility to reform groups that have sprung up recently.

“Rigging an election is a sovereign decision that could only come all the way down from the head of state,” Mr. al-Khodeiri told fellow judges in Alexandria in April in an address seen as the spark of the campaign.

“Mr. President, Egypt’s judges say to you that any reform will be cosmetic and even worsen unless it’s based on free elections,” he told judges from throughout Egypt in May.

This is dangerous talk in what is considered, in effect, a police state.

Mr. al-Khodeiri said he wants judges to supervise the vote to gauge the government’s sincerity in promising a clean election. “Our struggle for more reform will not stop there.”

Brotherly aid

Mohammed Habib, a geology professor who studied at the Rolla campus of the University of Missouri, speaks the new language of the Muslim Brotherhood — freedom and reform.

No longer does the brotherhood want to act alone. Instead, it seeks common ground with opposition parties, civic groups and reform movements. Its members have joined others in street protests, a decision that has proved costly. About 3,000 brotherhood supporters have been arrested since early spring, and about 100 remain in custody, including senior leaders.

“It’s our strength that makes the government take a hard-line stance on us,” said Mr. Habib, the brotherhood’s second-in-command, at the group’s headquarters in Cairo.

Genuine reform, he said, must be an internal product.

“If it comes from outside, those who give it can also take it away,” said Mr. Habib, who has spent more than six of the past 25 years in jail.

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