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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 August 2005, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Tension grows ahead of Egypt poll
By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

An Egyptian pro-reform activist gestures from a police truck as he is arrested
This protester flashes a "V"-sign - but Mubarak victory is certain
The official campaigning period for Egypt's first contested presidential election has yet to start, but already the political temperature is rising.

Demonstrators opposed to the re-election of President Hosni Mubarak, were kicked and beaten up by baton-wielding riot police recently as they tried to hold a rally in a main square in downtown Cairo.

The assault on the protestors is yet another mixed message from a government which insists it is committed to democratic reform, while its actions seem to advertise a limited tolerance to opposition.

"How can the president say we are entering a new democratic era, when the opposition was beaten up so savagely?" says George Ishaq, the co-ordinator of Kifaya, the movement opposed to Mr Mubarak which organized the demonstration.

"This regime has no credibility."

One-man race

The violence came just two days after Mr Mubarak announced he would run in the 7 September election, and promised that his new mandate would be marked by a series of democratic reforms which include curbs on presidential powers and the enhancement of the authority of parliament.

They are aware that there is a vast reservoir of public discontent out there, and no one knows how it will express itself if demonstrations continue
Mostapha Kamel al-Sayed
Political analyst
Mr Mubarak also promised that the much-criticized emergency law, which many accuse of stifling political life in the country, would be replaced by new anti-terror legislation.

"I am certain of my choice," said Mr Mubarak in his Thursday address.

"I choose a strong and democratic Egypt, which ventures into the future with free Egyptian citizens."

The speech in which Mr Mubarak told Egyptians that he would "seek to gain their confidence and support for another mandate", was unprecedented for a leader who has been in office for 24 years without having to face a single contested election.

Delivered at his old school in the village of Kafr Meselha, and including personal references to his childhood and youth, the address was clearly aimed at evoking the image of a campaigning president trying to ensure that voters preferred him to his challengers.

But there is almost no chance that the presidential race would be won by anyone other than Mr Mubarak.

Egyptian plain clothes police officers arrest a pro-reform activist
Promises of democratic reform clash with the way protesters are treated
With the exception of Ayman Nour who heads the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, the leaders of the handful of tiny political parties who have so far presented their nomination papers are completely unknown to the country.

Mr Nour's popularity remains hard to gauge and he is still a relative newcomer on the national scene even if he has been a member of parliament for some years.

His party was only approved last November, and he will be up against a well-established incumbent supported by a pervasive party machine - not to mention the security forces and the state.

In addition, Mr Nour currently faces charges of forging documents needed to legalize his political party.

He denies any wrongdoing and says the allegations are politically motivated.

Arrested for six weeks earlier this year, his detention sparked a crisis in relations with Washington which has been pressing the Egyptian authorities to adopt democratic reforms.

The charges and the perceived American backing are likely to be used to discredit him.

Discontent

In contrast, the country's main opposition parties have refused to put up candidates.

They say there are no serious guarantees the election will be fair or transparent.

They are also angry that none of their proposals for election safeguards were taken up by the government when the rules were being drawn up.

Egyptian opposition politician Ayman Nour
Nour was detained for six weeks earlier this year
"Everything has been prepared so that the nomination of candidates [other than Mr Mubarak] would be part of a decor aimed at giving the impression that there is real democracy and genuine competition," said Diaa al-Din Dawoud the leader of the Nasserist party.

But of course even the main opposition parties have very limited popular support.

They have atrophied as a result of decades of authoritarian rule and emergency legislation which has limited their ability to interact with the public.

Most of the opposition leaders are elderly and unprepared. They would be extremely unlikely to give Mr Mubarak any serious worries if they were to run against him.

So it all leads to the question: why do the authorities bother to crackdown on a few hundred demonstrators, undermining the democratic image, when victory is assured for Mr Mubarak?

"Old habits die hard," says political scientist, Mostapha Kamel El Sayed.

"From the point of view of the regime, it is better to be cautious.

"They are aware that there is a vast reservoir of public discontent out there, and no one knows how it will express itself if demonstrations continue."




SEE ALSO:
Egypt's Mubarak seeks fifth term
28 Jul 05 |  Middle East
Egypt vote boycott gathers pace
20 Jul 05 |  Middle East
Egypt dissident to boycott vote
18 Jul 05 |  Middle East
'Travel ban' on Egypt party chief
22 Jun 05 |  Middle East
Clashes tarnish Egypt referendum
26 May 05 |  Middle East


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