Opposition to Mubarak may force poll into second round

The embattled Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, held a final election rally of carefully selected supporters in Cairo last night in an effort to beat back a strong challenge by the leading opposition candidate, Ayman Nour.

Mr Nour, a 40-year-old lawyer who has received cautious support from the US for his Ghad (tomorrow) Party's challenge to the 77-year-old strong man, received a tumultuous reception from emotional followers at a meeting in the Egyptian capital's vast Tahrir Square.

Opinion polls suggest that the contest, the first multi-party election for the country's head of state, could go to a second round run-off after Wednesday's vote, despite claims of widespread intimidation of opposition campaigners by security forces and electoral officials.

Throughout the campaign, President Mubarak has underlined his magnanimity in accepting competition after ruling for 20 years on the basis of a simple "yes" or "no" referendum as a mandate for retaining power. "These days will be recorded by history," he declared in Alexandria on Saturday. "The initiative to amend the constitution has changed the face of political life in Egypt and opened new horizons of freedom and democracy."

Internet opinion polls predict that Mr Nour and Mr Mubarak will be neck and neck in Wednesday's polling, with between 30 and 40 per cent, while some 20 per cent is expected for Noaman Gomaa of the New Wafd Party, who is seen as a Government-backed spoiler candidate to sabotage Mr Nour. If no candidate wins 51 per cent outright on Wednesday, a second round would be held.

Mr Nour has campaigned on a platform of eliminating official graft and poured scorn on President Mubarak's pledge to create 4.5 million new jobs over the next six years. "We will attack corruption from the top and the bottom," hetold the crowd to wild applause. "I have heard the President say on private television that corrupt ministers can now be taken to court. I should like to ask the President if he is talking about Egypt or another country." Mr Nour also accused the Government of giving scant attention to the plight of the poor.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement is excluded because of rules prohibiting religious parties. It has called the presidential election "cosmetic", but urged its supporters to vote following their consciences as "training" for parliamentary elections to be held in October or November, in which the Brotherhood, running candidates as independents, hopes to garner as many as 20 per cent of seats. As many as 1,500 activists were rounded up by security forces earlier this year ahead of the polls and are languishing in prisons.

Several left-wing groups have joined George Ishak, the veteran Marxist, in a movement called Kefaya (Enough), boycotting the election and staging street protests, theoretically illegal under emergency legislation in force since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

"President Mubarak's election programme ... affirms the intention to continue to plunder wealth and power and violate the national will for change and for establishing a society of justice and freedom," Mr Ishak told a news conference yesterday.

Egyptian streets are decked with personality-cult style posters of Mr Mubarak showing him in front of Air Force MiG jets, or in front of mosques and Coptic churches, underlining his policy of religious tolerance. Opposition groups say local councils have obliged shopkeepers to paste up the posters.

But Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of Egypt's 10 million Coptic Christians, upset many people when he endorsed Mr Mubarak as "a leader who is passionate about wisdom and tolerance. All Coptic leaders ... have signed a declaration in support of Mubarak since he has great knowledge and good relations with all leaders of the Arab world and beyond," Pope Shenouda said.

Milad Hanna, an urban planner and Coptic intellectual, said "the Pope has the personal right to vote for Mubarak, but that is his own will. We ... do not need advice from anyone." Egyptian rights groups have said the election is unlikely to be free and fair because independent monitors cannot enter polling stations and the state press has backed Mr Mubarak. "I can declare now that this election will not be a fair and free election," said Negad el-Borai, the head of the Group for Democratic Development. A court ruled on Saturday that monitors would be allowed into the polling stations, but the election committee, which has the final say, rejected the ruling.

The government said on Saturday that a terror attack in July at Sharm El Sheikh had been linked to Egyptian militants who attacked international observers in the Sinai last month. The official report dismissed media reports at the time that Pakistani militants were involved.

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