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Mubarak's Challengers Face Long Odds

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Egypt tomorrow holds its first-ever competitive presidential election. The incumbent, Hosni Mubarak, who's been in power since 1981, this election has been traveling the country promising a massive job program to alleviate Egypt's high unemployment. Several challengers, led by a reform-minded lawmaker, are struggling to get their message out, but as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, they face long odds.

PETER KENYON reporting:

The city of Assiut, some 230 miles south of Cairo, was known to the Greeks as Lycopolis, city of the wolf. Once valued for its strategic location along the Nile, Assiut has fallen off the map, according to its residents, but that changed recently when the president and at least one of his challengers dropped by to campaign.

(Soundbite of drums, crowd)

KENYON: This crowd of several thousand has been waiting for President Mubarak for hours in a huge tent outside a cement factory. They're eager to see their leader of nearly two and a half decades come and ask for their vote for the first time.

(Soundbite of cheers, applause)

KENYON: When the president finally appears in a gray suit without necktie, he gets an adoring reception. In a speech frequently interrupted by cheers and applause, Mubarak said his main goal is to put more young Egyptians to work.

(Soundbite of crowd)

President HOSNI MUBARAK: (Through Translator) My election program aims to provide more than four million job opportunities during the coming six years. New job opportunities will be the focus in the sectors of industry, agriculture, commerce and tourism.

KENYON: Analysts say Mubarak's challengers have virtually no chance of pulling off an upset. Still, veteran politicians such as Noman Goma of the venerable Al Wafd party are out on the stump in the wilting August heat. One of the higher-profile challengers is Ayman Noor of the new Al Ghad party.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

KENYON: The day before Mubarak's visit to Assiut, Noor boarded a train to the same region. Lush fields of corn and wheat flashed by as the train rolled through Egypt's narrow fertile breadbasket, fed for centuries by the Nile. Noor is a soft-spoken, bespectacled lawmaker who was thrust into the spotlight when the authorities arrested him on forgery charges that he says are false and politically motivated. His voice hoarse from campaigning, Noor says Egyptians seem ready for change, but they don't trust the government to count the votes fairly. Election officials insist everything will be above board, but so far they won't agree to international observers, despite complaints by hundreds of Egyptian judges slated to monitor the voting. Noor says he wishes he could reassure voters, but he can't.

Mr. AYMAN NOOR (Presidential Candidate, Al Ghad): (Through Translator) To be honest, we can't tell people anything because we don't have any guarantee of anything. Until now, we don't know where the polls are going to be, the ballots, where they are going to be. Until now we don't have a list of the voters. The only thing we can tell them is that the more people that go, the more there is an opportunity that there will be a real election.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: Noor is greeted by raucous, supportive crowds in upper Egypt. People cheer as he slams Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party as corrupt and ineffective. Noor has his own program to fight unemployment, including monthly unemployment benefits of 150 pounds, about $25. But in a sign of how steep a hill any challenger to Mubarak must climb, a voter who gives his name as Muhammad says he doesn't trust any politician's promises, and anyway, he prefers the devil he knows.

MUHAMMAD (Egyptian Voter): (Through Translator) Ayman Noor is talking about 150 pounds in unemployment. Of course, will he really do that after he is elected? This means that the person we know is better than the one we don't know.

KENYON: Analyst Mohammad Said Idris at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies says this type of resigned, even fatalistic attitude is understandable, considering that Egyptians have essentially been left out of the political process for decades.

Mr. MOHAMMAD SAID IDRIS (Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies): (Through Translator) They felt that whether they participated or not the results will be the same, and they believe now that President Mubarak possesses the authority and possesses the institutions for all those who think of going to participate. We also start thinking the person we know is better than the person we don't know, because it is not based on selection; it's based on the lack of trust.

KENYON: More optimistic analysts believe that, however slightly the democratic door has been opened this year, the seed for further reform has been planted. They point to President Mubarak's campaign Web site, which asks visitors what they see as the most important issue in the campaign. Two of the three choices are key points in Mubarak's platform: job creation and higher wages. But the current leader, by a better-than-2:1 margin, is the third option: more freedom and democracy.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.