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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 September 2005, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Winds of change blow slowly in Egypt
By Fergus Nichol
BBC News, Cairo

Bread seller in Cairo. (Picture: RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Hosni Mubarak dominates Egyptian politics as well as this Cairo highway
Egypt has been voting in its first contested presidential elections. The result, as universally predicted, is a victory and a fifth six-year term for veteran President Hosni Mubarak. So what, if anything, has changed?

In many of his greatest and often bleakest novels, Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel laureate, ponders the effect of Western influence, modernisation and change - both the allure and the danger - on the slum neighbourhoods of Cairo.

In all my writing, he once said, you'll find politics. You might find a story which leaves out love or some other subject, but never politics. It's the very axis of our thinking.

He was less interested in ticking off historical landmarks than in weighing the psychological impact of change on a typical family in a Cairo backstreet.

Standing in a noisy scrum of voters and polling station officials in the ramshackle suburb of Imbaba on election day, I wondered what Mahfouz would have made of this great day for democracy, in a place so reminiscent of his own old stories.

Hosni Mubarak's government set out not to adapt to change, but to control it
A place left behind by progress, forgotten by government. People living in broken down apartments, in rutted dusty lanes just 10 blocks away from Mercedes showrooms and Siemens fridge-freezers - and asked to believe in a new republic.

Of course, it wasn't just the vocal middle classes assessing the potential risks and benefits of change during the three-week campaign, that crash course in facsimile democracy.

What would change for the young woman in her modest, yet elegant, pink hijab headscarf bent over a sewing machine on the grinding 0800 to 2000 shift in a Heliopolis shirt factory?

Or the young man in Hurghada who's been sent back to his village from a building site on the Red Sea coast because the tourists suddenly stopped coming?

For the first time, in theory at least, they have the opportunity to place in the balance the well-known old order - what one magazine called, in a rush of blood to the head brought on by the intoxication of new press freedoms, "the Pharaoh presidency". And on the other side, a leap into the unknown.

Election rules

But the government put a lot of clear blue water between that theory and the practice. Forced by outside pressure into an election it never wanted, Mr Mubarak's government set out not to adapt to change, but to control it, in the process drawing a new template for cynical election management.

A voter casts his ballot
A low voter turnout could undermine President Mubarak's authority
Rule number one: allow only nationally unfamiliar figures or out-and-out no-hopers to stand against the president.

Rule number two: ban the Muslim Brotherhood - a non-violent group that's hugely popular on the street, precisely because it provides the medical, sporting and social security network that the government doesn't.

Rule number three: stop the last voter registration drive just before the announcement of the country's first ever multi-candidate race.

With the full weight of the ruling party machine on his side, a Mubarak victory was always inevitable, but what can be said about his mandate?

A population of 75 million people, 32 million declared eligible as properly registered.

The most generous independent observers put the turnout at about 15%.

So if Mr Mubarak sweeps the board with, say, 70%, a quick run through the maths gives us fewer than four million people endorsing the president.

Even taking account of the kids below voting age, four out of 75 isn't so much a landslide as a rattle of loose stone.

Heir apparent

Are there then no prospects for change?

Well, it may have proven largely immune to the cajoling, hectoring or straightforward abuse from outside its ranks, but the ruling National Democratic party may prove vulnerable to agents of change from within.

And, extraordinarily, they are centred on the president's own son, Gamal Mubarak.

Now highly placed in the party, he has single-handedly infused many of the key ministries of state with a new dynamism.

He denies that he is the anointed president-in-waiting. Nobody believes him of course, but that doesn't mean he's not telling the truth.

An anti-Mubarak demonstration on Cairo's Tahrir Square
Opposition supporters protested in Cairo's main Tahrir Square
And there were other glimpses of a new order on the campaign trail to inspire confidence in future change.

The boldness in the press - which progressed exponentially from cautious criticism to downright libel - was matched to an even greater extent by a boldness in street protests.

With demonstrators young and old relishing their first ever chance to scream "Down with the president!" without being swiftly moved on to unpleasant police accommodation.

But the old order was always in plain sight and often in plain clothes. Party fixers and security personnel in identical cheap suits mingling obviously in the crowds, with back-up on call from the young and menacing street thugs.

None of them yet seeing the need to let go, to get used to the idea that there's a new way of doing things.

So the winds of change blow sluggishly on the Nile. There's not long to wait until the next test of press freedom, of fledgling people power on the street, of those shiny new campaign strategies.

Egypt's national assembly elections are just weeks away.

Oh and by the way, I did since find out what Mr Mahfouz makes of all this.

He's 95 now, but he's still writing and in a short, weekly newspaper column he wrote:

"The relationship between the government and the public is undergoing a fundamental change. A nation that votes is one that demands accountability. A nation that selects from multiple candidates expects a winner to keep his promise."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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