STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The Arab world's most populous nation has been ruled by a single man for 29 years. He is Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. He's 82 years old, Egypt's longest-serving ruler since the 19th century. But his backers have still not had enough. They insist he will run again in next year's presidential voting. Mubarak has indicated that those elections could be a little more democratic than the ones he has allowed in the past, but many younger Egyptians don't believe it.
This week, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is going to take a look at Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and she sends her first report from Cairo.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Few holidays evoke a patriotic display here in Egypt like October 6th. That's the day Egyptian forces launched a successful attack across the Suez Canal during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. This year, President Mubarak used the occasion for a televised appeal to his countrymen, to be proud of their nation and government.
President HOSNI MUBARAK (Egypt): (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: He spoke of how much Egypt is today, economically and militarily, than back in 1973. He encouraged cooperation between Egypt's Muslims and Christians and vowed to fight terrorists and extremists.
Mr. MUBARAK: (through translator) We continue to face many challenges but we continue on our path with confidence, knowing we are on the right track.
SARHADDI NELSON: Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, gives Mubarak high marks for what he's accomplished in 30 years.
Mr. NABIL FAHMY (Former Egyptian Ambassador to the United States): You have to look at the context of where Egypt was and what the challenges were when he came to power.
SARHADDI NELSON: Fahmy says Mubarak has since modernized the Egyptian economy and paved the way for increasing democracy. He points out that there are now 24 political parties - eight times as many as there were when Mubarak took office. Fahmy says there have also been increasing press freedoms.
Mr. FAHMY: If you look at what's being said in the media in Egypt - whether satellite television, Internet, the printed press - it is far beyond anything you could imagine 30 years ago.
SARHADDI NELSON: That's not how 29-year-old Ahmed Maher sees it.
Mr. AHMED MAHER (Founder, April 6): (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: The construction engineer says it would fill books to describe everything that is wrong with Egypt following three decades of Mubarak's rule. He complains that no one in government is accountable to the public and that corruption is rampant.
Maher, like so many of his generation here, is not content to let the government continue on its current path. He founded the April 6 youth movement in 2008 to agitate for political and economic change. Its activities on the Internet and on the streets have become an embarrassing thorn in the government's side, like drawing international attention to the consequences of a state of emergency law that was imposed after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and which continues to this day.
Critics say the law allows Egyptian security forces to operate with impunity.
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SARHADDI NELSON: April 6 joined other activists in what for many months were weekly protests, like this one, over the death last summer of Khaled Said in the northern city of Alexandria. Witnesses say the 28-year-old businessman was dragged away from an Internet cafe by two police officers. They're accused of repeatedly slamming Said's head into nearby stone steps until he was dead.
Said's defenders believe the police targeted him because he had shared an online video showing illegal police activities. Police officials allege Said was a drug peddler.
Ms. LEILA MARZOU SAID: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: His mother, Leila Marzou Said, says what happened to her youngest son shows how much the state fails to care for its citizens. Another of her sons is Ahmad Said, who is a naturalized American citizen.
Mr. AHMAD SAID: Only that will happen in Egypt. 'Cause we are silent all this time waiting for anyone to do something - and nothing's been done.
SARHADDI NELSON: The public outrage over the death of Khaled Said and ensuing international pressure was enough for the government to bring the two officers to trial, which is extremely rare. But it hasn't stopped continuing allegations of police abuse. This month, officers from the same precinct implicated in Said's death stand accused once more, this time for allegedly torturing a 19-year-old detainee to death and dumping his bruised body into a canal.
Officials at the Egyptian interior ministry declined a longstanding request to be interviewed for this story.
Gaser Abd El Razek is on the board of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. He says while the situation is troubling, there's little anyone outside the government can do about it.
Mr. GASER ABD EL RAZEK (Board Member, Egyptian Organization for Human Rights): The impunity will be challenged by one of two things: either the regime itself correcting the problems, and it's not under siege, pressure to do that, putting in mind that it only survives because of that security apparatus.
SARHADDI NELSON: He says the other reason the impunity isn't challenged is because of insufficient domestic and international pressure. That in part may be because on paper, the Egyptian government holds far fewer people without trial under the emergency law, now, than it has in the past.
Abd El Razek says in the mid-'90s there were about 35,000 such detainees at any given time, many of them from Islamist groups.
Mr. ABD EL RAZEK: Today, the figures vary from 1,000 to 5,000. So, a huge drop in the number of people that are in fact in prison right now without trial. The difference now is that it's so random it comes from all walks of life.
SARHADDI NELSON: Allegations of police intimidation have increased in recent days and the run-up to next Sunday's parliamentary polls. Some opposition party candidates complain about being harassed or stopped from campaigning outdoors. Campaign workers are sometimes arrested, as happened in Cairo recently.
Two staffers for independent candidate Gameela Ismail were arrested for handing out her flyers before the official two-week campaign period began. Never mind that some ruling party candidates have had their posters and banners up for weeks.
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SARHADDI NELSON: Like in this Alexandria neighborhood of El-Gaharea(ph).
Mr. SAID HUSSEIN: (foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Here, Said Hussein is campaigning for an independent candidate backed by the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Hussein says many shopkeepers in the neighborhood complain to him that police officers came to their places of work weeks ago and forced them to display banners and posters of ruling party candidates.
(Soundbite of men speaking foreign language)
SARHADDI NELSON: Even now during the legal campaign period, Hussein is rather nervous. He rushes his candidate to a meet and greet with constituents along the narrow streets, in hopes of wrapping up before the police show up.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.
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INSKEEP: Tomorrow, our series continues with a look at corruption in Egypt's economy. You can hear it right here on your local public radio station. As you go through your day, you can also check at NPR.org, where I'm looking right now at an amazing slideshow showing photos, the class divide in Egypt.
You can learn more about Hosni Mubarak's government. You can keep in touch with NPR programming through your local station's website, at NPR.org, on smartphones, on your iPad or on Facebook or Twitter. We're @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.
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