CAIRO, OCT. 4 -- President Hosni Mubarak, on the eve of a referendum to grant him a second six-year term, made a broadcast appeal today for Egyptians to turn out at the polls.
Mubarak is the only candidate and his reelection is seen as assured. But analysts predict that voters will follow a tradition of low participation, which would limit any boost from the referendum to Mubarak's political legitimacy. A low turnout or an unimpressive margin of victory for Mubarak would leave his regime appearing less popular, they said.
The government is anxious to buttress its legitimacy, in large measure because of an economic austerity program required under the terms of a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The loan package is forcing the government to cut heavy subsidies on fuels, although Mubarak has so far avoided sharp rises in food prices, which sparked widespread riots in 1977.
But the IMF is reviewing the Egyptian austerity plan, and could soon demand further moves, which might be unpopular. The economic challenges arise in a political system that has been opened to some opposition participation during Mubarak's first term.
In parliamentary elections last April, moderate opposition groups, one of them supported by the fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood, won just under a third of the seats, but left Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NPD) in firm control of the government.
The government has campaigned intensively in recent weeks for the political boost it seeks in Monday's vote. In rallies throughout the country, Mubarak and his party have emphasized their democratic liberalization and especially practical improvements in peoples' lives: new sewer systems, telephone lines and transportation systems.
Over the weekend, the government-owned newspaper Al Ahram published a book of Mubarak's achievements and continued what has been a daily roll call of groups and individuals supporting Mubarak.
Political analysts say Mubarak has built popularity in Egypt with his low profile, eschewing ideology and working instead for practical improvements. These analysts say Egyptians were tired of the strident ideologies that characterized the regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.
But Mubarak's critics counter by saying that he has not come to terms with Egypt's basic problems: an overburdened and stagnant economy dependent on massive aid and imports, and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. They say that the democratic liberties he has brought -- mainly a freer press and a limited party system -- are selective and that the rights to organize and strike do not exist.
Two of the five legal opposition parties have refused to endorse Mubarak's reelection. The parties, the right-wing New Wafd and the socialist National Progressive Unionist Party, and the opposition press have criticized the government, creating the feeling of a real national debate.
In his radio and television address, Mubarak said, "Forces outside the country are trying to slander" Egypt's democratic experiment. He called on Egyptians to vote "to prove to those forces that they believe in democracy."
"The NDP is afraid the people won't go to the polls," said Mohammed Sayed Ahmad, a left-wing writer and intellectual. "For them, percentage of presence is important."
Mubarak became president in October 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic fundamentalists. Under the constitution, the People's Assembly, or parliament, nominates one presidential candidate. Although his party lost some ground in the April elections, it kept the necessary two-thirds to nominate him for approval on Monday's yes-or-no ballot.
Results of the referendum will be announced Tuesday, and Mubarak is already scheduled to be sworn in for a second term on Oct. 12.
Despite the national debate, analysts predict that voter turnout will be low, as it has been traditionally since the early 1950s. Analysts say participation usually decreases because of the public's sense that the result is pre-determined, and that this election is no different.
By announcing before the election a date for Mubarak's swearing in, the National Democratic Party hurt chances for a better turnout, according to Mohammed Salmawy, an editor at Al Ahram and a playwright. "People would vote for Mubarak willingly. He has managed to gain people's confidence," he said, but the NDP deprived the people of the need to vote for him. People don't need to go out and vote."
Analysts predict that Mubarak will follow a program in his second term similar to his first, including improvements in infrastructure, slow economic reform and a continuing commitment to free speech.
The NDP "is a group dedicated to muddling through," said Prof. Earl Sullivan who teaches political science at the American University of Cairo. "Mubarak is interested in practical details. He's uninterested in ideology. He has to deliver to his essential constituents -- the military, police and the business community." These groups, analysts say, do not want change or austerity measures that could bring unrest.
According to the government-owned press, Mubarak will outline the main features of his domestic and foreign policy shortly after taking office on Oct. 12.