The official campaign period for Egypt's landmark presidential election opened Wednesday. Ten men, including sitting President Hosni Mubarak, are vying for the presidency in the country's first multi-candidate election.
The three leading contenders for the presidency all scheduled rallies for Wednesday to launch their election campaigns. Incumbent President Hosni Mubarak decided not to wait for the rally and took out a full-page ad in Egypt's largest newspaper, the government-run Al-Ahram. A private television station bought space on another page, trumpeting its exclusive coverage of the president's bid for re-election.
This is the first time in his 24 years in office that Mr. Mubarak has faced an electoral opponent. So the idea of competitive political campaigning is new here.
The Information Ministry has issued regulations designed to guarantee equal media coverage for all parties and candidates, but opposition leaders complain that it is too late, and President Mubarak already has a tremendous advantage over them.
Professor Hassan Nafae heads the political science department at the University of Cairo. Despite the unprecedented anti-government protests in the months leading up to the poll, he says few voters seem to believe that the election will actually bring change.
"A first election in the history of Egypt should have been much more exciting than it is right now, and I do not think there will be real mobilization," he said. "In a way, because this is a first time, there is some curiosity, but I do believe that the prevailing attitude is that anyway, Mubarak will be president and nothing much will be changed."
Although there will be 10 candidates on the ballot, Professor Nafae says most of them are relative unknowns. Nineteen other candidates were disqualified from the election, and several parties are boycotting because they claim the poll will not be fair.
The professor identifies two men as Mr. Mubarak's only serious challengers: Noaman Gomaa of the left-leaning Wafd Party, and Ayman Nour of Hizb al-Ghad, the Tomorrow Party.
Mr. Nour is a telegenic young member of parliament who gained international attention when he was arrested in February on charges that he and his supporters call politically motivated. He is one of Mr. Mubarak's most vocal critics.
In an interview with VOA on the eve of his campaign launch, he said his platform can be summed up in two words: hope and change.
"Change is the battle of our generation," he said. "We aim for a change that agrees with the convictions of our generation."
Mr. Nour says Egypt is being run by men who came of age during World War II. He says he and his party represent the younger generations, and have a different vision for the country and the future. He says he wants to "revive hope in people's hearts."
"This is a person who has lost hope for the long term," he said. "He has no hope for a job, no hope about his feeling of humanity. Even the hope to emigrate has become very limited. People feel that the future is black. This is a result of losing hope."
It is not clear how much support Mr. Nour really has. He says the only way he can lose the election is through fraud. But other candidates are making similar claims, with one relatively minor party saying it expects to earn 60 to 70 percent of the vote. Analysts say that is unlikely, and Mr. Mubarak will almost certainly win.
Professor Nafae of the University of Cairo says a better test of Egypt's nascent democracy could come later in the year, during parliamentary elections.
"The presidential election will not yield a radical change," he said. "But, if the legislative election is done properly, maybe this will be the beginning of a real change in Egypt."
The election is scheduled for September 7.