Mubarak invincible - even in a real election

IN THE small Nile Delta town of Damanhur last week, a small crowd had collected to watch a middle-aged man in a long, flowing galabaya, sitting in the back of a white pick-up truck. They applauded dutifully as he crooned compliments to President Hosni Mubarak through a microphone.

This tepid gathering was part of the government campaign to stir up interest in today's referendum, in which Egyptians must decide whether to give Mr Mubarak a fourth term that would put him in office for another six years.

Vast flags have been unfurled from many of Cairo's high-rise buildings, fairy lights hang outside government offices, and portraits of Mr Mubarak plaster the city - many of them depicting a man much younger than the president's 71 years.

Banners hung over the streets proclaim "Yes to Mubarak", and posters declare sycophantically: "With you, we'll realise our hopes and our dreams." Pro-government rallies - mainly attended by state employees - have been held all over the country.

Anyone would think the result was in doubt, but in June the parliament, dominated by Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party, rejected four other would-be candidates. Today's referendum has been described by officials as "a day of loyalty to the leader".

The curious aspect is that President Mubarak might well be able to win a real election. Over the past few years, the Egyptian economy has prospered. A stepped-up privatisation campaign has created a new, moneyed class that enjoys mobile phones and Mercedes, even though the gap between Egypt's rich and poor has widened as a result. The state seems to be winning the violent struggle against the radical Islamists who killed Mr Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and have tried several times to assassinate him as well, most spectacularly in Addis Ababa four years ago.

A heavy security campaign, during which thousands of Muslim radicals were detained and sometimes tortured, has helped to bring back the tourists. They had been driven away by the attack in November 1997 when 58 visitors were massacred outside a temple in Luxor.

Though the country continues to struggle with population growth, unemployment and lack of housing; many graduates cannot find proper work and civil servants drive taxis at night to make ends meet. But President Mubarak is, for the most part, well-liked by ordinary Egyptians. People like Ali Muhammad Tahar, 68, from the southern town of Aswan, see him as steady and unassuming. "King Farouk, President Nasser and President Sadat, I've seen them all," he said. "There's no one better than Mubarak."

Even Egypt's enfeebled opposition is hard put to criticise the president personally. The West sees him as a key figure in the Middle East peace process, while international financial institutions have lauded his policy of privatisation. And he has no obvious successor.

Mr Mubarak has ruled Egypt under emergency law since Sadat's assassination in 1981, sticking to his predecessor's 1979 peace treaty with Israel despite strong opposition from Islamists. For most of the 1990s he has been fighting a renewed campaign to replace his government with Islamic rule, in which secular writers and intellectuals have been targeted as well as security officials.

At least 1,000 people died in the five years from 1992, many of them Islamists killed by the army. Earlier this month Mr Mubarak was attacked with a penknife by a street vendor while on a visit to Port Said. The man was instantly shot down.

The Islamist threat seems to have waned, but after 18 years, many Egyptians - particularly younger and more educated ones - want change. "Mubarak is a father to the Egyptian people, not just a president," said a 24-year old student. "But the problem with a father is that you're stuck with him for life, for better or for worse."

Decades of authoritarian rule in Egypt have, however, resulted in political apathy. Parties based on religion are banned, and the activities of secular opposition groups carefully circumscribed. Two military vehicles were parked outside the headquarters of a left-wing opposition party in central Cairo on Wednesday, where a rally to demand political reform attracted barely a couple of hundred people. Empty seats and polite clapping greeted speaker after grey-haired speaker - most of them septuagenarians like Mr Mubarak.

"Ordinary people don't see how they can possibly influence the politics of the country," explained Muhammad El-Sayed Saeed, a human rights activist participating in the meeting. "They have no access to the instruments of change. It's time to break this tradition in the Arab world of having presidents for life. The whole idea of a referendum is absurd."

Mr Mubarak has promised greater democratisation, but said in the same breath that "democracy is not a thing to be given all at once". Certainly not much will be on offer today. "Mubarak is the only candidate, and he will get 99 per cent of the vote, like he does every time," says Muhammad Abdul Qadus, a moderate Islamist. "Even God wouldn't get a 99 per cent rating."

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