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Mubarak Steps Into an Unfamiliar Ring

Times Staff Writer

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday stood outside the provincial school where he long ago was a working-class pupil and announced his candidacy in Egypt’s first open presidential election.

Now 77 and with more than two decades of unbroken power under his belt, it was the first time Mubarak had presented himself as a candidate in a competitive race. The September vote will mark a sharp change for the autocratic leader, who in 24 years as president has never allowed another person to run against him.

On Thursday, Mubarak portrayed himself as an applicant for the voters’ support rather than the rightful heir to the throne, lacing his speech with words such as “I will seek to win the trust and support of the people” and “Should you bestow upon me the honor of continuing to lead ... “

Mubarak appeared undaunted by his advancing years, the months of crackling political discontent in Egypt or the recent terrorist attacks on tourists.

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Critics dismiss the election as an empty show meant to deflect U.S. pressure to democratize, without seriously endangering Mubarak’s supremacy. An election law instituted at the president’s request this year placed strict limitations on the number and types of candidates who can run. Fundamental decisions, such as whether the hopefuls will compete in a televised debate and whether international monitors will be allowed into the country, still rest squarely in Mubarak’s hands.

Despite the appearance of anti-government critiques in Egypt’s independent newspapers and a rash of street demonstrations against the president, it is difficult to find an analyst who believes that anyone besides Mubarak will emerge victorious in September.

Still, against the backdrop of elections in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, the prospect of even a flawed vote seems to have raised popular expectations and unleashed a political energy in Egypt’s streets, unions and universities.

Mubarak appeared to acknowledge his shortcomings Thursday, saying, “I realize that the mission I pledged to carry out has not yet been entirely completed.”

In a nod to the long-standing demands of the opposition, he promised to repeal a controversial emergency law, which was clamped over the country after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, and never lifted. In its place, he suggested, Egyptian lawmakers will hammer out a package of anti-terrorism legislation.

“The emergency law has, to a great extent, minimized terrorist threats and helped preempt many terrorist plans during the past years,” Mubarak said in his speech, which was broadcast on state-run television. “Many countries have recently passed comprehensive laws to combat terrorism. Time is ripe for us to follow suit.”

His supporters cheered the plan as a way to create greater political liberty without sacrificing the security services’ ability to arrest and detain would-be attackers. But civil libertarians and human rights activists expressed concern, with several critics pointing out that many of the stifling restrictions of the emergency law, such as arbitrary detention without charge, could be preserved in the anti-terrorism legislation.

Other nations, including the United States, have criticized the emergency law. However, it would be far more difficult for the international community to complain about laws targeting terrorism. The U.S. and Britain are among the nations that have passed controversial anti-terrorism legislation in recent years.

“According to our historical experience, before you end emergency status you try to introduce the role of emergency law into ordinary law,” said Ahmed Seif Islam, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo. “This happened during the British occupation, during [Gamal Abdel] Nasser’s period, and it can happen now under President Mubarak.”

The 21-day presidential campaign, which officially begins Aug. 17, will be a test for Mubarak, a period that will begin to reveal how serious he is about political change. He has come forth this year with unprecedented critiques of his government and calls for democracy. Still, many Egyptians are convinced he is trying to deflect international pressure without producing any real change in the deeply entrenched power structure.

A handful of opposition party leaders are expected to run against Mubarak, but it is unclear whether they will be able to gain equal access to Egypt’s vast state media, even though they are legally entitled to the airtime and column inches.

Oversight of the voting is also a divisive question. The United States has urged Egypt to allow international observers to monitor the election, so far without success.

“We are not certain at this point how far he’ll go, because we have contrasting and contradictory signals and symbols,” Mohammed Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said of Mubarak. “He’s actually struggling against his very nature as a conservative leader who gives much more priority to control as opposed to freedom.”

Mubarak caught the nation off guard in February when he appeared in his home district early one morning with a surprise announcement: After decades of “yes-no” referendums, he would urge legislators to amend the constitution to hold Egypt’s first multi-candidate race for president.

Dulled by decades of political stagnation, Egyptians were skeptical from the beginning. Even among optimists, jubilation was quashed as the amendment made its way through parliament. The law in effect banned independent candidates and severely limited which opposition parties could field a contender.

Criticism continues as the campaign approaches, and a growing list of opposition figures have called for a boycott. Ayman Nour, the most prominent of Mubarak’s expected rivals, has complained of harassment at the hands of the ruling party.

Posters calling Nour a rat and a U.S. agent were hung in his home district; shopkeepers said they were foisted on them by members of Mubarak’s ruling party.

Wael Nawara, a Nour aide, said members of Nour’s Tomorrow Party had been harassed by state security agents. Nour himself has been charged in a forgery case his followers say is a frame-up intended to neuter Mubarak’s strongest opponent. The trial has been postponed until late September.

“The competition itself is totally unfair,” Nawara said. “We still see a total marriage between the [ruling] National Democratic Party and state security.”

But Mubarak’s party appears eager to run a campaign. Hours after the announcement of the president’s candidacy, reporters were invited to visit the ruling party’s campaign headquarters in the tony Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis.

Workers there were busy setting up opinion polls and focus groups, brainstorming ad campaigns and preparing news releases. Mohammed Kamal, communications director for the campaign, repeatedly pointed out that the campaign was not staffed by government workers, that finances would be transparent and that the campaign would be hard-fought.

“We’re taking it very seriously, we’re taking it competitively,” he said. “We’re going to work for every vote.”


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