Egypt is preparing for Wednesday's landmark presidential election. Sitting President Hosni Mubarak has been in power for 24 years, and for the first time, he is not running unopposed. The election comes against a backdrop of anti-government protests and heavy pressure to democratize, from both inside and outside Egypt. And so 10 candidates will be on the ballot. But few people believe any of them have much chance at unseating President Mubarak.
Several years ago, an anti-government protest like this one would have been impossible to imagine. Human rights groups have long condemned Egypt's restrictive state of emergency, saying the government exploits the threat of terrorism to squash political dissent. And even now, every protest is ringed by a vast number of riot police, who sometimes get rough with the demonstrators.
But the dissenters are not being quiet anymore. They are demanding not just an end to President Mubarak's 24-year rule, but also fundamental changes in the Egyptian system of government, which they often call a dictatorship or a police state. Their movement is known as Kifaya, the Arabic word for enough.
"This interview may cost me five years in the prison," said a man, fearing retribution, who gave his name only as Mohammed. "Yes! Because they are watching all the foreign channels, TV channels, and they are following the pictures. They are following every person. So who knows what will happen. But I am not afraid. I am not afraid. I am an Egyptian! I am a citizen! And I am fed up! After this 24 years, I am fed up! I can't bear anymore."
Egypt is literally one of the cradles of human civilization, with a much-studied history running back 6,000 years. Age-old traditions live side-by-side with modern innovations, and modern problems. The country that developed one of humankind's earliest writing systems is still evolving and changing.
This week, for the first time, Egyptians will go to the polls and have a chance to choose who they want to run their country. President Mubarak has held power for 24 years, and this is the first time he will face any opponents on the presidential ballot. But the leader of a group called Youth For Change, Ahmed Salah, has little faith that the election will change anything.
"Nobody votes," he said. "I only tried to vote once, and I saw with my own eyes how they tore the paper, into the rubbish, that had my ballot, and they made a new one in front of me. We are absolutely sure, 100 percent, that it is going to be rigged, the same like all the other elections, the referendum, like everything."
Even if the election is fair, President Mubarak is seen as the almost certain winner. Most of his nine opponents are political unknowns, and still other candidates have been barred from competing.
But even so, the president is campaigning as if his life depended on it. He has held rallies in every major city, and his banners and billboard blanket Cairo. He is presenting himself as the candidate for stability and strength, playing up his experience in foreign relations.
At the same time, with demonstrators in the streets, the president is promising change: more jobs, better roads, more schools and more democratic reforms.
And it would be a mistake to interpret the street protests against Mr. Mubarak as a sign of overwhelming opposition to him. He does have many supporters.
After 24 years, many younger Egyptians have simply never known another leader.
"He is good for us because he stopped the fighting with the other countries, and I would trust him much better than somebody else," said a local shop owner, who gave his name only as Ekramy. "Because we care [don't want] really to get somebody else, we don't know him. Maybe he fault us, but Mubarak is very fair for us, and will do many nice things for the people here in the market. Really I really feel Mubarak is much better than anybody else."
Voting day is September 7. Because Egypt has never had an election like this one before, nobody really has any idea how many people will show up at the polls.