CAIRO, Egypt – This is a campaign season of surprises – except for the outcome.

Egypt’s first open experiment with democracy – a swift 19-day presidential campaign for a six-year term of office – is almost sure to return President Hosni Mubarak to office, cementing a three-decade rule. His confident broad-jowled visage overwhelms the skyline these days, peering from banners flapping from rooftops, billboards and lampposts.

Yet the three weeks of politicking leading to national polls on Wednesday may have forever changed how about 77 million people consider political debate in Egypt as well as the country’s political horizons.

For the first time, state-run television opened its studios to challengers. Candidates rallied crowds who were left untouched, during this special electoral time, by the truncheons of state security agents. People felt free enough to complain aloud about the creaky state of the Egyptian economy and the waste and corruption hidden in the state budget.

The exercise encouraged potential voters, in public and private ways, to gauge their own powerlessness and the dark side of an opaque system.

Voters’ lists – said to contain the names of 32 million people – are secret and roundly disputed by the opposition. Voter registration remains a cumbersome process for many people – those born before 1982 – who must register at local police stations. Egyptians born after that benefit from automatic registration.

In dozens of interviews over the past week, many Egyptians said they want to vote. Few knew if they were registered. None wished to approach police, dreaded in many communities, to find out.

“We need two months more of this campaign to know what we need to know,” tax supervisor Mohamed Letwali said during a rally held by the largest opposition group, Al-Wafd Al-Jadid or New Delegation Party.

“I mean, it’s change. That’s good. But most people really don’t know what democracy is,” said Letwali, echoing sentiments from dozens of Egyptians asked about the election. “Just look at the banners. People are scared to put up any banners but (those of) Mubarak.”

In today’s election, voters will choose among 10 candidates. Mubarak hopes to extend his 24-year rule by another six years by defeating two serious challengers and party leaders: Noaman Gomaa, 70, of the New Delegation Party, and Ayman Nour, 40, of Al-Ghad or Tomorrow Party.

Gomaa is a former law professor seeking public office for the first time. Nour is a former member of Parliament, a popular politician in some of the poorest areas of Cairo and a high-profile activist. Nour was arrested in January and held for 45 days on charges – which he denies – that he forged signatures on documents needed to show public support to form a party. Washington criticized the detention.

Both challengers during well-attended rallies in the past week called for broad economic reforms, the release of political prisoners and, perhaps most notably, the repeal of emergency law. The law, instituted for decades, allows the state to jail people indefinitely and without trial if they are suspected of undermining state security.

The other challengers are a mixed bag of political adventurers, socialists and publicity seekers – including a 91-year-old man who, if elected, wants to require every Egyptian man to don a traditional Ottoman fez. The Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful political and religious force, was not allowed to field a candidate because of a ban on religious parties. The group urged followers not to vote for Mubarak, but it did not endorse any candidate.

The genesis for this monumental moment in Egypt remains ambiguous. For months, the regime was the target of spirited challenges from a loose coalition of intellectuals, Islamists and technocrats rallying for change.

Beyond its border, the Bush administration was pushing democracy. Reform movements in Lebanon and even baby-step efforts in Saudi Arabia to allow local elections heightened the sense that public demands were serious threats to the status quo.

Still, Mubarak stunned the nation when he decided, at age 77, to make his first run for competitive office. He has been on a ballot before – but as the only choice, requiring a yes or no vote. This week’s election will be the first, direct presidential poll in 7,000 years of Egyptian history.

“Until today, I think people still have their doubts,” said analyst Diaa Rashwan of Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. “But I think we are in a process … (where) political forces will bear some fruit.”

The presidential poll could pack some aftershocks. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party has witnessed a generational change, if not renewal sparked by the campaign.

Mubarak’s son Gamal, 41, emerged in the past few years as a potential political heir. In this election, he has been pivotal in choreographing his father’s appearances.

The presidential season has also given parties interested in chipping away at Mubarak’s sway over parliament some attention.

Candidates from major parties have hammered out reform platforms that will likely influence the next round of voting, for parliament, to be held within weeks.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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