RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This weekend, Egyptians will vote in a parliamentary election with an outcome already foretold. The ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak will almost surely win most of the seats. But in next year's presidential election, Mubarak himself could lose his job. He's been at the helm of Egypt for nearly three decades, and now at 82 he's one of the world's oldest leaders.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following one opposition candidate for parliament to get a feel for the direction Egypt's leadership might take.
She begins this last story in our series on the streets of Alexandria.
(Soundbite of noisy street)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It's easy to see that lawmaker Sobhy Saleh is very popular with constituents here in this crowded neighborhood in Alexandria. Everyone wants to shake hands with the campaigning incumbent, who is running as an independent but is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is a banned political movement in Egypt, but independents with Brotherhood backing, like Saleh, control about a fifth of the seats in parliament.
(Soundbite of people chanting)
SARHADDI NELSON: Time and again, Saleh's many supporters here shout out the Brotherhood slogan: God is great, thanks be to Him, and Islam is the solution. So it seems a bit odd that in this staunchly pro-Brotherhood neighborhood all of the campaign banners and posters are for Saleh's opponent from the ruling party. Residents and shopkeepers here say they support Saleh, but that police pressured them to display the ruling party ads. Saleh worries the government won't stop there.
Mr. SOBHY SALEH (Egyptian Politician): (Through translator) I trust the voters. But I don't trust the authorities not to throw this election. They don't respect the law, the constitution or even court orders.
SARHADDI NELSON: Saleh has cause to be worried. His seat is one of the many opposition seats the government has decided to go after. Experts say a compliant parliament with no meaningful opposition will make it easier for the ruling party to hand-pick a successor to Mubarak should one be needed. And the government appears to be leaving nothing to chance.
It more or less eliminated judicial oversight of next Sunday's polls and is limiting voting to one day instead of three. Critics complain the steps make it more difficult to independently monitor the polls, meaning they will be more vulnerable to fraud. The government also banned several pro-Brotherhood candidates from running. And some people in Saleh's district complain they are being refused voter registration cards.
Mr. SALEH: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Back in el Raml neighborhood, Saleh asks the NPR reporter to stick around. He predicts police officers would soon show up to forcibly stop him from campaigning on this night - but the crackdown didn't come until eight days later. It targeted many Brotherhood rallies around the country.
Saleh said he had just come out of a mosque in the Alexandria neighborhood to greet supporters when a speeding armored car drove into the crowd, injuring 17 people. The incumbent encouraged people to leave. But he said the crowd grew angry and pelted the responding security forces with stones. Police officers fired back with tear gas in clashes that lasted two hours.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of applause)
SARHADDI NELSON: Back in Cairo, these activists try a different tack. They are part of a group garnering signatures across Egypt for a petition that seeks to amend the constitution and end the ruling party's stranglehold over elections.
The petition drive was inspired by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whom many reform-minded Egyptians would like to see run for president. Organizers say they've collected over 900,000 signatures thus far. But on this afternoon, the petition gatherers are swapping ideas on how to be informal poll watchers next Sunday without getting into a tussle with police.
Coordinating the petition campaign is an Egyptian poet named Abdul Rahman Yusuf.
Mr. ABDUL RAHMAN YUSUF (Poet): (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: He says their approach is one of getting the job done without antagonizing the authorities. When gathering signatures, for example, they seek out areas that are not overly crowded and keep their activities brief so as not to attract police attention. He says the goal is to convince Egyptians that meaningful political reforms can happen safely and peacefully.
But he and everyone else interviewed for this series think such reforms won't come in time for next year's presidential elections, even if Mubarak steps down. If he does, many Egyptians think the president might give the nod to his younger son, Gamal.
The younger Mubarak is an investment banker by trade and powerbroker in the ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP. But he lacks military experience and is said to be at odds with some of the old guard. Nevertheless, his proponents plaster what appeared to be Gamal Mubarak campaign posters on public buildings and along several streets in central Alexandria last week. That's illegal, although the dozens of police officers in the area did nothing to remove them.
The posters proposed a, quote, "revolution of love," an intifada, or uprising, of the people. Yes we support you, the posters read.
Gamal has some advantages over other ruling party prospects, says Hala Mustafa, a member of the NDP and a political analyst at the state-funded al Ahram Foundation.
Ms. HALA MUSTAFA (Political Analyst): He's the youngest, so it means that he could be more flexible in dealing with the causes and the issues of the future.
SARHADDI NELSON: She adds the impact of his work can already be seen in some of the country's economic reforms and that he has the business community in his corner.
But ruling party spokesman Ali el Dean Hilal says it's too soon to be talking about who will be president after Hosni Mubarak. He refused to confirm or deny reports that quoted him announcing Mubarak will run again. But he vehemently denied other reports claiming a power struggle over succession is underway within the National Democratic Party.
Mr. ALI EL DEAN HILAL (Spokesman, National Democratic Party): What I can tell you, and I sit on all the high councils of NDP - there's not much discussion about that because we don't feel the need for doing it.
SARHADDI NELSON: Hilal says that's because Mubarak is still very active, with a keen and vivid mind.
Nabil Fahmy, the former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, says it's clear that Egypt's next president, even if it isn't Mubarak, will belong to the NDP. He is hoping for a more realistic margin of victory - say, 60 percent rather than 80 percent. To him, that would be a meaningful sign that Egypt's democracy is evolving.
Mr. NABIL FAHMY (Former Egyptian Ambassador to the United States): The competition is what makes you feel you're accountable.
SARHADDI NELSON: Many critics of the government say accountability won't come unless there are constitutional reforms. They want limits on how much power one party can wield and how long one man can rule Egypt.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.
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