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Last Updated: Monday, 5 September 2005, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Analysis: Re-birth of Egyptian politics
By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

Kifaya logo at protest
Regular protests by Kifaya are unprecedented for Egypt
Egyptians will go to the polls on Wednesday to vote in their country's first ever contested presidential election.

Ten candidates are running for president, but it is the incumbent, Hosni Mubarak, who is expected to win.

Critics of Mr Mubarak, who has led Egypt for 24 years, charge that the election is a charade aimed at deflecting American pressure for reform.

But even if, as many believe, the results are a foregone conclusion, there is no mistaking the energy that preparations for the poll have injected in Egypt's long-stagnant political life.

A year ago it would have been impossible to criticise or accuse Mr Mubarak like this in the press
Hesham Kassem
al-Masri al-Youm

For civil society in particular, the run up to the election has presented an opportunity to press for genuine reforms.

New and old civil groups have been trying to push at the rigid boundaries which have stifled politics causing Egyptians to lose faith in the possibility of democratic change.

Unprecedented protests

Almost every week now hundreds of activists take to the streets shouting slogans against the president.

Most of the demonstrators belong to a year-old movement called Kifaya - Arabic for "Enough" - which has been campaigning against a new term for Mr Mubarak.

Hosni Mubarak poster
Hosni Mubarak is the overwhelming favourite in Wednesday's poll

Kifaya's protests are unprecedented in a country where the government has always clamped down on demonstrations and where the ruler has always been on a pedestal, completely above criticism.

"Silence is betrayal nowadays, all over the world," says Hany Anan, a successful businessman and one of the founders of Kifaya.

"We are showing Egyptians that we can challenge the ruler, we can tell him we don't want you, that's enough, you go, and we can do this in public and still go back to our homes, maybe with some wounds or some bruises, but we still go home.

"I think people are starting to suspect the culture of fear. They are doubting their despair."

Broken taboos

The breaching of taboos is at its most obvious in the press. Both opposition and independent newspapers now dare to discuss openly sensitive issues such as corruption, torture and whether the president's son, Gamal, is being groomed for the succession.

If no candidate polls 50%, the two with the highest number of votes proceed to round two
Egyptians over 18 are required to vote by law. There are over 32m registered voters out of a population of some 74.9m
Presidents elected for six year term

"The changes are immense in the press," says Hesham Kassem who runs al-Masri al-Youm, a new independent newspaper which has quickly established a reputation for credibility.

"Today, looking at one of the weekly papers, I could not believe their criticism or their accusations against Mr Mubarak. This is verging on libel. A year ago it would not have been possible."

The Egyptian government has been careful to provide this election with all the trappings of a fair and democratic race.

All candidates have been able to campaign and they have been given equal time slots on television to explain their political programmes.

For years people have not been actively involved in politics, many claim it is because they have lost confidence in the process. Well it's not going to clean itself up by itself

Ghada Shahbandar

But the problem is that after decades of rigged elections, many Egyptians just can't be bothered to vote.

It is this apathy that a new internet-based group called ShayfeenCom wants to change.

"ShayfeenCom means [in Arabic] 'we are watching you' and we are watching out for violations," says Ghada Shahbandar, the spokeswoman of the group.

"We want every Egyptian to say we are watching you, we will not accept violations and we will report them. Basically we are going to speak out."

They have set up a website to receive complaints and they say they have recruited via the internet volunteers all over the country to watch out for violations.

Engaging in politics

ShayfeenCom was founded by a group of professionals, the kind of people who have traditionally steered clear of the hazards of Egyptian politics, preferring the security of a comfortable middle-class life.

I'm positive Hosni Mubarak will be re-elected, so why bother and vote?
Tina, Cairo, Egypt

"History has taught us that it is the bourgeoisie which brings change," says Mrs Shahbandar, a teacher and mother of four who only recently became politically active.

"For years people have not been actively involved in politics, many claim it is because they have lost confidence in the process. Well it's not going to clean itself up by itself. Someone has to do something about it, and it will become a much better process with more participation."

Other NGOs have taken the electoral commission to court in a bid to establish their right to enter polling stations in order to monitor the election. Although the court ruled in their favour, the commission says it had no jurisdiction.

But even if NGOs are unable to monitor the election completely, they plan to be outside polling stations and to form the fullest possible picture of the vote. Their findings will appear in reports which will undoubtedly fuel further debate and further political contestation.

'Re-birth of politics'

Also planning to monitor the election are the judges who say they will issue their own independent report on the poll.

Under the Egyptian constitution, the judiciary is required to supervise elections, and the government has rejected foreign election monitoring saying the judges' supervision will be sufficient.

But many judges fear they will be used to legitimise a fraudulent poll.

At a meeting last Friday of their association, the Judges' Club, they warned they would denounce the election if irregularities occurred.

They have already issued a damning report on the 25 May 2005 referendum which led to amending the constitution to allow multi-candidate presidential elections.

This open challenge from the judges is unprecedented in a country where the executive always gets its way.

But it is part of a new mood in Egyptian politics which many expect to continue beyond the election.

"When it comes to this rebirth of politics that's taking place, I truly don't believe there is any turning back on this. It's done," says Hesham Kassem. "The new territory the opposition has moved into, certainly won't be retrieved by Mr Mubarak."

Civil society in Egypt is taking its first steps towards empowerment.

Ultimately the real test will be its ability to galvanise the large numbers of Egyptians who have been put off politics by the autocratic practices of the last 50 years.

Profiles of the ten candidates

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