As presidential campaign draws to close, Egyptians cautiously welcome historic vote |

As presidential campaign draws to close, Egyptians cautiously welcome historic vote

TANTA, Egypt – Opposition supporters banged drums and waved orange flags, but many people in this teeming Nile Delta town are so unused to real election campaigns that they thought the march was the circus come to town.Still, the rally led by presidential candidate Ayman Nour was a brief, boisterous example of the dramatic political changes sweeping Egypt.As campaigning for the country’s first contested presidential election drew to a close Sunday, voters swung between apathy and a cautious hope that change is in the air.”It’s about time there was more than one candidate. We need anything new,” said Ahmed Sherif, a 36-year-old high school teacher who drove 60 miles to Tanta to hear his first speech by a presidential aspirant.For more than a half century, Egyptians have gotten no closer to choosing their president than voting “yes” or “no” for the sole candidate in referendums stage-managed by the country’s military-led regime.On Wednesday, however, President Hosni Mubarak faces nine challengers – at least two with a real chance of gaining votes – although he is expected to easily win his fifth 6-year term.Mubarak’s surprise decision earlier this year to open up the presidential race came amid increasing domestic agitation to reform this politically and economically stagnant country, demands buttressed by a push from Egypt’s U.S. ally for reforms across the Middle East.While few think the new dance with democracy will result in Mubarak being removed, many believe the door to change is now open, improving chances that one day someone from outside the military could run the country.”We have woken up from 24 years of sleep,” said a Tanta limousine driver, Abdul Hamid Hassanein, 67. “We are looking for our personal freedoms and democracy.”One of Mubarak’s key challengers, the New Wafd party leader Noaman Gomaa, wrapped up his campaign by complaining of minor harassment from the ruling party’s supporters and worrying about possible voting day violations.But Gomaa also praised the coverage his campaign received from state-owned media. “The Egyptian television treated us well and gave us opportunities,” he said. “The governmental press was reasonable to a great extent.”Mubarak, 77, has ruled since Islamic militants assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and is the only leader many of Egypt’s 72 million people have ever known.Critics complain his political reforms do not go deep enough and say Wednesday’s vote is designed to simply return him to the presidency with a veneer of democracy.Still, Mubarak sought to show there was a real political race, touring Egyptian cities to press palms, kiss babies and criticize opponents.Egyptians “now have the ultimate say in setting the course for the future because they will be choosing the president who will lead them,” he told the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.Thousands of cheering Mubarak supporters crowded a downtown Cairo square Sunday outside Abdeen Palace to hear the president call in his final campaign speech “for the support of all the citizens of the land of Egypt.”Mubarak’s huge advantages over his challengers made some Egyptians sigh.”Why should I vote? Mubarak is going to win anyway,” said Salah Saleem, a 29-year-old driver for a foreign aid agency who lives in Cairo’s slum-like Boulaq Dakrour neighborhood.Nour, another of Mubarak’s main rivals, said it will be tough to beat him this time. But Nour, whose jailing earlier this year led Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel a visit to Egypt in protest, predicted change will come eventually.”I know if we are not successful on Wednesday, that we will be in the next elections, because people are ready, thirsty and waiting for change,” he told The Associated Press.A major negative for many voters is the barring of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and oldest Islamist movement, depriving several million voters in the impoverished, conservative masses of a clear choice.”Egyptians have no real trust for what is happening and this will continue until all parties, including the Islamists, are allowed to participate,” said Diaa Rashwan, a leading political analyst.Many ordinary Egyptians like Abul Azayem Ahmed, a Mubarak supporter, say what they really hope for is change without disruption, crisis or violence, leading to better jobs and more opportunities.”I like Mubarak, but we need change. We need someone who can improve the economy and education systems,” said Ahmed, a 31-year-old trained as an accountant but who can only find work delivering groceries. “I think the elections will one day bring that.”Vail, Colorado

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