Money calls the tune in Egyptian election

Vote-rigging claims: Opponents of the government complain political issues are elbowed aside by naked pursuit of power

ROBERT FISK

Cairo

The cop was grinning. In riot visor, holding a rifle, standing next to his armoured vehicle, he didn't seem too worried about yesterday's elections.

Just down the street from the Sayeda Zeinab mosque, a fat man in a brown jacket - a supporter of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (439 candidates) - was slapping the face of a follower of the Liberal Party (102 candidates). The two men, followed by a crowd of youths, slapped their way down the street, past the shops selling oranges and car spare parts and chickens and spanners and grapes until the Liberal voter jumped into a minibus and made his getaway.

"He claimed we were pushing ballots for our man into the ballot box," a polling official for the NDP candidate, Fathi Srour, explained with a smile almost as broad as the policeman's. "We would never do that." All around him in Sayeda Zeinab - whose slums contain 3 million of Cairo's 22 million people - the NDP men roared with laughter. It was the same all over Cairo. In el-Sarabiya, an independent candidate was so enraged that polling officials might have rigged his local election that he drove his car into the voting station, injuring several people.

It may have been exciting - in the Gharbiya province outside Cairo, the man in charge of a polling station was shot dead after accusations of vote-rigging - but it was a curious mirror image of the concerns voiced by Westerners about Egypt's parliamentary elections. For while human rights organisations have been complaining about the government's arrest of 600 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Egyptians yesterday treated their elections with a more robust if equally cynical response. Egyptian elections, as the spanner shop owner pointed out in Sayeda Zeinab, are about money, not religion.

And age, he should have added. It was Mohamed Heikal, most quoted and irrepressible of all Egyptian journalists (but no voter yesterday) who held up an opposition newspaper which bore a picture of Fouad Srag el- Din, leader of the opposition Wafd party (184 candidates). "I like Srag el-Din very much, he is a friend and we were in prison together [under Sadat]," the legendary Mr Heikal announced. "But he is 91. And look at the headline of his article: 'A New Today is Your Time for Change.' In the article, he says, 'Let us lead the nation to the doors of the 21st century.' I like him, yes - but 91!"

And it is painfully true that most of the political leaders permitted to contest this election are old men; either that or sleek newcomers to the political process, anxious to demonstrate that their business acumen should be rewarded with social status. Two candidates, for example, have been abusing each other in paid advertisements in the pages of Al Ahram at a cost of perhaps pounds 80,000. Ibrahim Mustafa Kamel and Yassin Srag el- Din have been arguing about business dealings involving a bank in Kuwait, lawyers in Geneva and Zurich, gold-mining in Tanzania and corporations in Lugano and the Bahamas.

Mr Heikal summed it up: "Ibrahim Mustafa Kamel is contesting a village called Milouf in the province of Minoufiya, the village where he comes from," he said. "But what do the people of Milouf know of such things? Do they know where Lugano and Geneva are? This is the problem with these elections. We are supposed to be going to the future. The election is important. There are symptoms of a contest - but they are not political. There are the families - the sons of older leaders - and those elements who made money and are now trying to acquire political power."

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