In the smoggy, jostling streets of the Egyptian capital, people of all political stripes greeted President Hosni Mubarak’s surprise call for an open presidential election with deep skepticism Sunday.
To people here, a representative government and civil liberties seem to hang on the horizon like mirages, tempting suggestions that quiver on satellite television and in university classrooms. But just when reform appears to draw close, it melts away.
“President Mubarak will remain in charge, and everybody will keep playing their roles,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, a 30-year-old gardener who had made his way into Cairo to peddle potted pansies, rosemary bushes and lavender plants. “Mubarak’s not going to shake things up.”
Officials in Washington and Cairo touted Mubarak’s call for a constitutional amendment to allow several candidates to run against him as an important stroke of reform in a long-repressed region. But like many working-class Egyptians who teemed in the chaotic clangor of a Sunday in Cairo, Ibrahim offered up lukewarm praise.
“This is new for us, and it’s welcome,” he said of the prospect of an open election. “But nothing will change. Look at me: Do you think as a peasant I could nominate myself?”
Egypt has been in an official state of emergency, subject to martial law, since President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. The media are carefully censored on topics ranging from Mubarak’s health to donkeys: Egyptian authorities are so eager to project modernity that a “donkey law” bans publications from printing photographs of the many donkeys that occupy the streets of Cairo.
Human rights groups have documented widespread and arbitrary arrests for an array of alleged offenses including political dissent and homosexuality, and Egypt’s prisons are notorious for the torture of inmates. Starting political parties is an arduous process. The Muslim Brotherhood, believed to be the party with the most ardent popular support, is officially banned and its members are periodically jailed.
There are no term limits on the presidency, which Mubarak has monopolized since Sadat’s assassination. Many Egyptians believe that Mubarak is grooming his son to take over. Some analysts characterized the president’s decision as a way to introduce 41-year-old Gamal Mubarak into the political race without blatantly handing power to him.
“It doesn’t matter if they say there will be an open election,” said Sarah Nabil, an 18-year-old mass communications major at the University of Cairo. “Nobody will elect anybody different -- they’ll be too afraid. Everybody is afraid of the government.”
Lounging in the sun-dappled courtyard at campus, Nabil shook a veiled head and shrugged. “First it will be Mubarak,” she said, “and then it will be Gamal. That’s all.”
Egyptians dismissed Mubarak’s announcement as a gesture crafted to ease U.S. pressure and appease rumbles of anti-government dissatisfaction that have been rising from Egypt’s streets.
They predicted that, despite promises of an open election, Mubarak and his associates would continue their steely rule of the country. Moreover, they scoffed at the suggestion that America was sincerely interested in creating a democracy here.
“Bush is a big liar. He’s a terrorist, in my opinion,” said Ahmed Hussein, 20, an economics student with a wiry beard. “And Mubarak is their servant. He gives them everything. This is an undemocratic country.”
The government would be less corrupt, Hussein said, if the Muslim Brotherhood could take over. “Mubarak said he’s going to change the constitution,” Hussein said. “I guess that means they’re going to tamper with the ballot boxes instead.”
Further, many people in this city of about 17 million are too preoccupied with keeping their families afloat in a depressed economy to waste much thought on politics.
The population of Cairo rises by an estimated 3 million every day as farmers and villagers pour into the metropolis, only to dwindle when they drift home at sunset. Weary workers travel for hours each day for a chance to earn a few dollars. They come to the capital for jobs at factories, or to pace the pavement peddling oranges and cabbage out of hand-woven palm baskets.
College graduates are hard-pressed to find jobs, which means they can’t get married or leave their parents’ homes.
“Mubarak had to say something. Look around at the condition of the country,” said Ayman Yehiya Ibrahim, a 29-year-old janitor. “If you look for a job, there is nothing. If you look for education, there is nothing. We are lost.”
Ibrahim traveled to Cairo from his village in the Nile Delta at the age of 22 because he couldn’t find a job at home. He shares a $15-a-month room on the outskirts of Cairo with another young man, and rides crowded minibuses for an hour each day to reach downtown, where he washes floors for less than $50 a month.
“He’s a politician,” Ibrahim said of Mubarak. “He had to show people he won’t stay in his position forever. But nothing is going to change. The big guy will always remain big.”
At the Hamada coffee shop, neighborhood lookouts had chirped the news to the waiters: Local council inspectors were on the way. Waiters scrambled to collect the wooden chairs and ramshackle tables from the surrounding sidewalks, packing their customers into a shop no larger than a walk-in closet.
By law, the Hamada is supposed to stay beneath its roof and off the sidewalks; in practice, cramming about 20 men into the shop to smoke water pipes and sip tea would be impossible. So the manager of the Hamada does what everybody does in Egypt: He improvises.
A few minutes passed, and nobody came. Then the call went up: “False alarm!”
Grumbling and cursing, the waiters scooped up the tables and chairs and spilled back onto the sidewalks. Customers were disoriented, scanning for their cigarettes so they could find their displaced table.
Hossam Paraf sat among the men, the earpiece for his new mobile telephone tucked into his ear. When Mubarak’s name came up, Paraf, 22, snorted and lighted a Boston cigarette.
“He’ll stay in his throne for the rest of his life,” he said. “He just wants to show the outside world that we don’t have a dictatorship in Egypt.”
As a member of Egypt’s small Bahai community, which is deeply distrusted by the Muslim majority, Paraf says he has been repeatedly harassed by security forces. He dug into his back pocket and pulled out his identity card, which listed his religion as “Muslim.” Egypt doesn’t recognize his sect, the followers of an Iranian prophet.
An student of English, Paraf was once beaten bloody in the Cairo subway for sporting a T-shirt with President Bush’s face emblazoned on it. The inscription below read, “Moron,” but his assailants couldn’t read English.
Paraf spoke of Mubarak’s promise with bitter disbelief.
“It’s a myth and a dream and I’m telling you that it will never happen,” he said. “He’s just doing this to satisfy the Americans.”