'The Light Of Our Eyes'

It was an unscripted moment rare in Egyptian politics. Last week Hosni Mubarak descended on the hardscrabble town of Assiut, 320 kilometers south of Cairo, one of the last stops in his carefully orchestrated presidential campaign. Thousands of ruling-party stalwarts, sheiks and Coptic priests jammed a tent in the desert heat to listen to Mubarak's prepared speech and cheer him. "You are the light of our eyes," they cried. "With our blood we will support you." Suddenly, as Mubarak left the stage, a stubble-faced farmer dashed against a barrier of security men and brandished a letter. "Mr. President," he shouted as the bodyguards pushed him away. "My son is in prison!" Nasser Safwat Niget, 48, explained to NEWSWEEK that his son had been jailed 14 years ago under the country's Emergency Law. "I have come to ask the president for help," he said.

Ruled by repressive strongmen for more than half a century, modern Egypt has never known democracy. But that may be changing. Last February Mubarak--under pressure from the Bush administration, a feisty opposition and reformers within his own ruling National Democratic Party--gave the green light for a multiparty vote on Sept. 7. Since then the country has witnessed an unprecedented spectacle. Mubarak, a stolid and remote figure whose 24-year rule has been ratified every six years by a rubber-stamp Parliament, has stumped for votes from the Nile Delta to Aswan challenged by candidates from two main opposition parties. Critics say that Egypt's election is an empty spectacle meant to please Bush, extend Mubarak's grip on power and legitimize a transition to a hand-picked successor--probably his son, Gamal, 41. But others say the country may be witnessing the kind of transformation that the U.S. president would like to see happen across the Middle East. "The door has opened, and I don't think the regime can close it again," says Mohammed Habib, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic group with strong grass-roots support.

Mubarak doesn't stand a chance of losing. Posters and banners praising the Egyptian leader festoon highway overpasses, Nile riverboats, buses and lampposts; opposition faces are rarely seen. The country's two biggest newspapers, both state controlled, have lavished him with praise, and slick Mubarak commercials dominate the air waves. The voter-registration period ended last December, two months before Mubarak kicked off the multiparty election process, and as many as 15 million eligible voters have found themselves disenfranchised. "Before we were apathetic about politics. Now everybody is interested, but so many can't vote," says Salwa Habib, the deputy chief editor of Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo. A web of rules imposed by the presidential-election committee has limited campaigning to two weeks, barred independent candidates from running and banned both international and local monitors from the polls. Under the current rules, says Negad al-Borai, chairman of the Group for Democratic Development, "there is no way to guarantee transparency."

Yet many Egyptians seem excited about the process anyway. Coffee shops are abuzz with talk of politics. Opposition groups such as Kifaya (Enough) stage weekly anti-Mubarak protests in downtown Cairo. (Ruling party thugs and the police have repeatedly broken up the demonstrations and beaten participants.) Much of the excitement has focused on Ayman Nour, 42, a charismatic attorney and the candidate of the small Tomorrow Party. Nour's scrappy, sometimes disorganized campaign has attracted growing support, and he has nettled the regime by attacking government corruption and calling for a repeal of the Emergency Law. "We've broken the barriers of fear and silence in this country," says Nour. "We've gotten people asking, 'Why have we accepted this [autocratic] regime for the last 24 years?' "

In the short term, however, the forces that helped shake up the regime may be the ones that guarantee Mubarak victory. One rationale offered by the Bush administration for toppling Saddam Hussein was to help spread democracy. Yet the mayhem of post-Saddam Iraq is driving many Egyptians into the Mubarak camp. Habib, a Coptic Christian, says she would vote for Mubarak because she fears that the other candidates would be unable to contain the Muslim Brotherhood and would allow Egypt to be transformed into an Islamic state. "Mubarak makes me feel safe," she says. Even those who've suffered at the hands of the regime say they like the relative stability and security that it has brought them. Clutching a photo of his jailed son, Niget, the farmer in Assiut, says he doesn't hold a grudge against Mubarak. "El Rais is strong," Niget says, using the Arabic word for leader. "Of course he'll get my vote."