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
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. …