Grand political theater in Egypt; Election: The outcome is not in doubt as Hosni Mubarak runs for a fourth term as president in this tightly controlled political system, but the lavishly staged campaign spectacle is an Egyptian tradition.


CAIRO, Egypt -- The massive video screen towering over a busy Cairo intersection plays an endless loop of President Hosni Mubarak's greatest triumphs: surveying reclaimed desert farmland, inaugurating Cairo's subway system, presiding over the repatriation of the final piece of Israeli-captured Sinai Peninsula land.

At the end, the message flashes: "Yes to Mubarak!"

Across the street, a man waiting for the bus rolls his eyes and mutters, "And what if we said 'No'? Who would we even say no to?"

After a minute he adds, "But between you and me, he's been good. He's done a lot of things."

Cynical ambivalence is the mood of the day as Egypt gears up for a one-candidate national referendum Sunday to re-elect Mubarak for a fourth six-year term.

The president, in power since 1981, enjoys a healthy level of public acceptance and support, but most Egyptians acknowledge that there really isn't much choice in the matter. With almost all political power centered in the hands of Mubarak's military-backed National Democratic Party, and lacking avenues for public dissent or discourse, the general mood is one of detachment from the affairs of public life.

"There is a great deal of apathy," says Muhammed el-Sayed Said of the al-Ahram Center of Political and Strategic Studies. "People's participation in the public arena is close to zero. Nobody votes."

Why should they bother? The outcome of the election has never been in doubt. Mubarak was overwhelmingly renominated by parliament in early June in a spectacle worthy of the Pharaohs.

One by one, members of the NDP-dominated People's Assembly came forward to deliver flowery pledges of loyalty and obedience. To underscore the depth of their feelings, some threatened to cut themselves and sign the pledge in their blood.

Mubarak was renominated by a 445-0 vote, with nine members of a leftist opposition party abstaining. A parliamentary delegation then traveled to the presidential palace, where Mubarak, according to press reports, said he was "duty bound" to honor the call to serve.

A massive publicity campaign has been in motion ever since. "Yes to Mubarak" banners blanket the city, and the newspapers are full of full-page pro-Mubarak ads taken out by government agencies and prominent businessmen seeking the favor of the regime. "God protect you, Mr. President, O source of love and hero of war and peace," proclaimed one ad. "All of Egypt thanks God for your safety."

It's grand political theater, but largely unnecessary. The referendum voting is expected to be heavily padded, and the only real question is whether the president will be announced as receiving a 99.8 percent "yes" vote or a mere 99.4 percent.

In fact, Mubarak is fairly popular, and most observers agree that in a multiparty election he would take at least 65 percent of the vote. Mubarak does not possess the cult of personality of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but he is generally accepted by the populace as a worthy leader, especially in foreign policy.

"He's liked, but with no enthusiasm," Said says. "He's not deeply hated, nor profoundly loved."

The election spectacle, with a media blitz and political machine-style rigging, is something of an Egyptian tradition, unchanged since the 1952 coup that replaced the monarchy of King Farouk with a military government. Even Nasser -- one of the most wildly popular Middle Eastern rulers in modern history -- played the same game.

With Mubarak's re-election a foregone conclusion, much of the scuttlebutt centers on what the president will do in the coming term. Rumors abound of a planned Cabinet shake-up, but that isn't expected to produce much fundamental change in the tightly controlled patronage system that governs Egyptian political life.

"Cabinet reshuffles in Egypt don't mean new ideas," says Gasser Abdel-Razik of the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid.

Others speculate that Mubarak will appoint a vice president -- something he has never done during 18 years in office. Mubarak, while seemingly in good health, is 71 and most likely entering his final term.

If he does pick a successor, the choice should shed considerable light on Egypt's future, both domestic and international.

Rumors abound that Mubarak is grooming his son Gamal to take the reins, as Syrian President Hafez el Assad appears to be doing with his son Bashar. The question is whether Mubarak, a former air force officer, would turn power over to a civilian for the first time since the coup of 1952.

"If it's a military man, you are saying to Israel that we are still on war terms," says journalist and political commentator Muhammed Sid Ahmed. "If it's a civilian, you are saying to the military that you are no longer in power."

Few observers expect a shift to civilian rule and an opening up of political life. The Middle East faces a generational leadership shift with the deaths of longtime rulers in Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain -- and with Assad and the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, Yasser Arafat, reported to be in precarious health. But Egypt seems locked in for another round of state-controlled business as usual, with little thought for the future.

"There's no new blood," says Ahmed. "The old generation is still holding on."

There are few palatable options for real change. The powerless, but tolerated, opposition political parties -- which regularly call for democracy and multiparty government -- are authoritarian structures led by septuagenarians grimly holding onto power.

"The [opposition] political parties themselves are not democratic and aren't calling for real democracy anyway," Abdel-Razik says. "I don't think there is enough pressure in this society calling for democratic change."

Recent years have witnessed a tightening of state control as the government has moved to suppress and control student-government elections and professional syndicates -- usually under the pretext of protecting "national unity" and guarding against the encroachment of radical Muslims. Harsh new laws have been passed placing greater restrictions on the media and nongovernmental organizations.

All of which suggests that the government is unlikely to open the floodgates of public expression any time soon.

"Why would [Mubarak] play a game that is harder for him to control," Abdel-Razik says. "Why not keep it the way he's been doing it?"

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