Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 May - 1 June 2005
Issue No. 744
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'The one you know'?

As the opposition screams boycott, the general public avoids the political fray. Gihan Shahine gauges the levels of anger and approval over article 76

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President Hosni Mubarak is widely perceived as a 'hero' or a 'father' to millions of people who are not especially concerned about the ramifications of amending article 76


Intisar, whose husband works as a porter, enjoys being asked her opinion on political matters like referendums, elections and protests. She would have cast her ballot at the nearest polling station if only her husband would let her. He won't, but that doesn't change Intisar's view that Egyptian women are getting more of their rights under President Hosni Mubarak's rule. She listed her years of schooling in a northern village, increased job opportunities, and the khul' law that allows women to divorce their husbands.

"I really wonder what all those protests are about," Intisar said. "Who else would people nominate if Mubarak steps down?"

Like many people, 23-year-old Intisar has grown up under Mubarak's 24-year old rule. Like many, she cannot think of anyone else being qualified for the job. The long-running state of emergency, which bans public assembly, combined with the state's hegemony over television and radio, have not left much room for the emergence of any other public figure who might be able to compete with the 77-year old president. For many, Mubarak is simply a " hero", "a father", or at the very least, "the only one" they know. Unlike the growing opposition chorus chanting for reform, the average citizen even seems ambivalent about the possibility that the president's son Gamal might run.

"He [Mubarak] built us bridges and tunnels, as well as many other achievements," said Mohamed, a street vendor. Not that Mohamed is satisfied with his life: he works hard to make ends meet and is upset about "everything getting extremely expensive". But he "would still say yes to Mubarak", he said.

Mohamed is not alone. Many of those speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly chose to ignore possible links between their financial woes, on the one hand, and the regime, on the other, seeing poverty as more of a "destiny" or "fate" that would not improve with any change in the regime.

That dynamic meant that opposition calls for reform were only finding fertile soil with a small, politicised elite. Many said they would rather play it safe and cast their ballot for Mubarak. "The one you know is better than the one you don't," was one civil servant's logic.

Although Samir, 40, is unemployed, he would still vote for Mubarak. "Better [Mubarak] than anyone else," he said. "I don't trust the opposition parties because all they want is 'the chair', and not the public's interest." Others credited Mubarak for a "wise policy" that had prevented, as one shop owner put it, "Egypt being bogged down in conflicts and wars".

Many of those speaking to the Weekly knew next to nothing about the restrictions imposed on presidential candidates by the amendment of constitutional article 76, conditions that are likely to impede a real presidential campaign. In fact, the amendment was widely perceived as a "great step towards democracy". Many of those speaking to the Weekly ignored an opposition campaign to boycott the referendum, saying it would only stand in the way of that democratic path.

Interestingly enough, many of those interviewed before the referendum showed little understanding of what it was all about. Some thought that by participating in the referendum they would be casting their ballot for President Mubarak rather than the amendment of article 76. A group of workers at a polling station in the impoverished district of Imbaba told the Weekly they were there to "say yes to Mubarak".

"We don't even understand what this article 76 is about," said a university student standing in front of a poll station in Zamalek.

"Regardless of what people think," said downtown shop owner Morgaan, "public participation in the referendum is important." He called the amendment "a long-overdue step towards democracy".

Fatma Abdel-Salam, a retired teacher, was equally enthusiastic. She said boycotting the referendum would be "passive -- the attitude of the weak. Why not go and say 'No'?"

An unmistakable sense of frustration, scepticism and pessimism, however, dominated the sentiments of those who argued that their participation would be "fruitless". A university professor argued that saying no would mean that, "we want to go back to a referendum instead of a multi- candidate presidential poll. Saying yes is not even a better choice, since it would imply that we approve of the hurdles [imposed by the amendment] on having a real campaign."

Another university professor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had never participated in elections and never planned to. "This is an undemocratic country," he said. "Why should we participate in referendums or elections when we all know Mubarak will win anyway."

That, perhaps, was also the mentality of the millions of civil servants and farmers who were bussed in by the government to vote "yes" at polling stations in yesterday's referendum. These represented the bulk of the voter turnout, which early indications put at far less than 50 per cent.

The low turnout probably had a lot to do with a prevailing sentiment that there was little hope for any democratic change under the current system. Many, like business development specialist Dina Tawfiq, shrugged at the idea of voting: "The government will have its own way. So why bother?" she said.

"It's all a farce," said IT specialist Ahmed Hossam. "Enough is enough; someone else should rule the country."

Nihal, a customer service officer, concurred, "I would definitely say no to Mubarak because 24 years are more than enough."

Additional reporting by Sara Abou Bakr

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