Egypt presidential campaign winds up
Judiciary overrules electoral commission ban on monitoring by independent local NGOs inside polling stations.
By Jean-Marc Mojon - CAIRO
Egypt’s first contested presidential campaign wound up Sunday, after three weeks that saw an unprecedented political debate but left doubts hanging over the transparency of the poll.
President Hosni Mubarak’s re-election has never really been in doubt but the "rais" stepped down from his throne and into the political fray, exposing himself to the jibes of his rivals and an emboldened press.
"The significance of this election isn’t the possibility of unseating Mubarak, but the fact that many Egyptians have boldly challenged his quarter century of rule," the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said.
Until now, Egyptians have only been able to say yes or no to a single parliament-nominated candidate but on September 7, they will for the first time have a choice of 10.
Mubarak appears convinced that the most populous Arab country’s 32 million voters will return him to the position he has occupied since 1981, and is already planning post-election talks with foreign dignitaries.
In his closing campaign rally on Sunday night, Mubarak nevertheless urged Egyptians to go to the polls en masse.
"The Hosni Mubarak speaking to you tonight is seeking the support of each and everyone of you," he told a crowd of thousands of supporters gathered in Cairo. "The era of referendums and allegiance is over."
"We want more freedom for our people and democracy for our country. We want more jobs and a stronger economy," hammering home the economic pledge which was the centrepiece of his campaign.
Ghad party leader Ayman Nur has led by far the most aggressive campaign of the nine challengers, launching stinging attacks against the veteran incumbent, whose aura as father of the nation had made him untouchable for so long.
"We want freedom, we want to end 24 years of oppression, economic crisis and joblessness," Nur thundered relentlessly as he criss-crossed the country.
Although the 40-year-old lawyer managed to raise his profile as the leading opposition candidate, many observers predict second spot could be clinched by Numan Gumaa, who chairs the liberal Wafd party.
Critics have charged Gumaa is a token opposition candidate who was prodded into standing by Mubarak’s ruling party to strip Nur of votes.
Mubarak himself showed a new face during a campaign which betrayed the handiwork of his powerful son Gamal, who could be seen supporting his 77-year-old father every step of the way.
More casual in his dress and displaying an unusual concern for the hardships of ordinary Egyptians, Mubarak spared no effort on the campaign trail, playing the democracy game despite a guaranteed victory.
On Sunday, the Al-Masri Al-Yom daily published the president’s first interview with an independent newspaper.
A wind of change has blown through Egypt since the start of the campaign on August 17, with guests criticising Mubarak on state television and independent newspapers carrying vitriolic editorials against the regime.
But in spite of what some observers describe as a first chink in the armour of the Arab world’s second longest-standing ruler, many features of Mubarak’s autocratic regime remain.
The main source of concern three days before the election is the transparency of the vote.
In a move hailed as a major step towards guaranteeing more transparency in the poll, the Egyptian judiciary on Saturday overruled an electoral commission ban on monitoring by independent local NGOs inside polling stations.
But the commission rejected the court’s authority and said it would ignore its decision.
The legal dispute could mean polling stations manned by pro-government judges bar access to monitors while those supervised by independent judges authorise their presence.
More than 30 civil society organisations have trained an estimated 2,000 independent monitors to assist the judges in supervising the vote.
According to independent estimates, turnout did not exceed 10 percent in previous presidential elections and many observers have predicted ballot-stuffing as Mubarak’s camp will lack legitimacy if turnout is too low.
Cairo has consistently refused the supervision of international monitors despite repeated calls from its US ally.
Leading opposition groups have called for a boycott, while the banned Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt’s largest opposition movement - could not field a candidate of its own and did not endorse anyone else’s.