On the eve of Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential vote, under a big white tent on a main Cairo street, none other than Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's son, was prodding hundreds of electoral workers from the ruling National Democratic Party to get out the vote.
No more than a year ago, this kind of scene was unimaginable. For a quarter-century, the elder Mubarak's election has been ratified through yes-no balloting in which he was the sole candidate. If the votes did not come, they could always be invented, many Egyptians complained. On Tuesday, they were being solicited from phone banks.
"We are taking nothing for granted. We're taking this vote seriously," said Mohammed Kamal, a member of the president's campaign team.
The voter drive is just one of the political novelties that have blossomed in Egypt in the weeks before Wednesday's vote. The official 19-day campaign, which wound up Sunday, featured inventive barnstorming by opposition candidate Ayman Nour, a lawyer and leader of the small, free-market Tomorrow Party, who pressed the flesh on sweltering trains and in tent rallies and paraded on horseback through Cairo, the capital.
Another candidate, Noman Gomaa, from the opposition Wafd Party campaigned on the straightforward slogan "We've had it." The Muslim Brotherhood, a large Islamic-based organization that is officially banned from political activity, urged its followers to vote against "corrupt oppressors." Brotherhood leaders said that meant to vote for anyone but Mubarak.
In all, nine candidates are running against Mubarak, though most are obscure. One is a self-styled fortuneteller. Another is 90 years old.
By all accounts, a Mubarak victory on Wednesday is virtually assured through his control of Egypt's massive system of patronage. Yet for opponents of the government, Tuesday was nonetheless a day for intense maneuvering. Human rights groups and dissident judges went to court and complained that independent monitors were being illegally excluded from polling stations. Late Tuesday, an appeals court backed the ban on monitors, yet rights groups refused to give up.
"Everything is confused and incoherent. It is the government itself that created these problems. We are set for a battle. We will try to get in and observe anyway," said Gasser Abdel Razek, head of the independent Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Abdel Razek charged that ballot counts would not be provided at precinct voting stations but would be announced later by the government-appointed election commission, a breach of the rules.
The Egyptian Movement for Change, a pro-democracy group that organized protests and spearheaded calls for Mubarak to step down, called for an election day demonstration in Cairo's massive Tahrir Square. The movement, also known as Kifaya, or Enough, called for voters to boycott the polls.
Further roiling the climate is uncertainty about how many Egyptians are registered to vote. Official estimates range from 20 million to 32 million. Mubarak announced his plan to hold competitive elections after registration rolls were closed. In the past, voter apathy has kept turnout low for both presidential and parliamentary elections.
Just how clean the vote is -- and how widely it is accepted by Egyptians -- will go a long way toward determining the pace of change that both government opponents and self-styled reformers who back Mubarak say they want.
The outcome is also a potential landmark in the Bush administration's drive to democratize the Middle East as an antidote to extremist groups that preach and practice violence. Mubarak ignored Washington's call for foreign monitoring of the election, calling it undue interference in Egyptian affairs. In the months leading to the presidential campaign, police crackdowns on Muslim Brotherhood members, official harassment of opposition activists and occasional violent attacks on anti-Mubarak demonstrators by ruling party operatives clashed with President Bush's appeals for freedom of expression and assembly.
Mubarak's supporters insist that democracy is on the way, but at Egypt's speed. "For the first time, a president will owe his power to the people," Kamal, a member of the ruling party's policies committee, said in an interview.
Mubarak's campaign has been effectively in the hands of his son Gamal, who has also spearheaded economic change as head of the policies committee. Opposition leaders say the businessman is being groomed to replace his father. Though Gamal Mubarak rejects the notion, he has altered the ruling party's political style. A private advertising agency was hired to design the campaign and soften the president's image. Posters showed Hosni Mubarak, 77, in shirt sleeves; a soft-focus portrait took years off his face. The president appeared at campaign rallies in an open-collared shirt and sport jacket. Although his effort to connect with crowds was somewhat undermined by a heavy security cordon of men in black, he promised jobs to Egypt's legion of unemployed and land for peasants. Large crowds greeted his speeches with shouts of "Yes, Mubarak" and "We love you."
"We wanted to sell the president and show a relaxed leader, which we believe is the president's true nature," Kamal said. The get-out-the-vote drive suggested the party was concerned with the chance that Mubarak might not win a majority on Wednesday, which would force a second round. "Turnout is definitely important for us," Kamal said. Gamal Mubarak, in blue shirt sleeves, oversaw workers as they badgered party members across the country to ensure that supporters of the president knew where and how to cast ballots and would get to the polls.
Thanks largely to Nour, the race had the look of a competitive contest. The 41-year-old lawyer undertook a colorful campaign unencumbered by the overlay of security. He frequently waded into crowds and was hoisted onto the shoulders of his supporters. He attacked one of Mubarak's main selling points -- that his long rule has provided stability to Egypt -- and called for an end to 24-year-old emergency laws that proscribe assembly and free speech. He said bomb blasts last year in the Red Sea resort of Taba and this year in Sharm el-Sheikh showed that the emergency laws were ineffective.
"What has been achieved?" he asked. "Terrorism has increased."