Across Egypt, the first free presidential election getting underway today is forcing people to take a stand on some of their society’s most divisive issues—sometimes defying their own spouses or other family members.
For Basheer Mubarak, it can feel like he’s standing against nearly his entire town. The 37-year-old technician lives in Kafr El-Maselha, the birth place of Hosni Mubarak, where cousins of the ousted dictator—Basheer included—fill several buildings along a city block.
Many of them pine for Mubarak’s return and back the candidate whose résumé most resembles his.
But not Basheer.
“What did he do for this country? It’s one big dump,” he says in the garage of his three-story building on Sadat Street, named for the autocrat, Anwar Sadat, who preceded Mubarak.
Basheer’s complaints mirror those of the young demonstrators who brought down the regime in January of last year during 18 days of protests: Mubarak suppressed dissent, rigged elections, and kept nearly half the country poor and uneducated. But Basheer is especially incensed at how run-down the country remained during Mubarak’s more than three decades of power.
Kafr El-Maselha, about 50 miles north of Cairo, is no exception. While other dictators in the region have invested in their own towns in order to maintain clan loyalty, Kafr El-Maselha is as broken and congested as the rest of Egypt, with ripped-up roads and poor sanitation.
In nearby Quesna, where the former leader moved as a youngster and where more Mubaraks reside, the clamor of old rickshaws drowns out just about everything else.
Residents said Mubarak had hardly visited the areas since he left for the Air Force academy after high school. No one who shared his name had actually met the former leader.
Basheer, who is married and has four daughters, says he’d been bitter about Mubarak’s leadership for years, but kept quiet because people who criticized the regime often were jailed. “My father kept telling me, ‘Don’t say anything.’”
Now, he supports Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist presidential candidate who helped lead the opposition to Mubarak for years. Two of his posters hang in the back window of Bahseer’s car, a Chinese-made Geely. He said a few other Mubaraks in the town are also critics of the old regime.
The other leading candidates include two Islamists and two people who served in Mubarak’s regime. More than 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held next month.
The neighborhood favorite is Ahmed Shafiq, who, like Mubarak, served as a senior Air Force commander and as prime minister briefly last year. Residents of Sadat Street said any time someone hangs a poster of a candidate other than Shafiq, it gets torn down.
Loyalists to the old autocrat include 65-year-old Said Mubarak, who lives in a building adjacent to Basheer’s. Roused from his afternoon nap one day recently, he came downstairs in his striped pajamas and flip-flops to talk to two journalists.
“We are bad people because we forget the good things and remember only the bad things,” he said. Asked to name one or two of Mubarak’s central achievements, he paused and looked off for a long time. Eventually he said: “The record speaks for itself.”
Mubarak himself would likely have pointed to his country’s strong relationship with the United States, the stability that came from maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and his success at keeping Islamists at bay. In parliamentary elections that followed Mubarak’s ouster, Islamist parties captured around 70 percent of seats in the legislature.
In Quesna, 70-year-old Sahar Mubarak said she voted for the largest Islamist list, the Freedom and Justice Party, but had since been disappointed. She would now give her vote to Shafiq, she said in the living room of her home.
Others around the room stressed that the Mubarak family name had afforded them no privileges. On the contrary, they said one relative serving in the military who had phoned Mubarak while he was Air Force chief to complain he had been denied home leave ended up regretting it. Mubarak extended his detention.
Nearly all the Mubaraks said corruption in the former regime was perpetrated by cronies but did not extend to Mubarak himself.
Only one family member in the area declined to be interviewed: Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, Sahar’s brother and a retired military officer who briefly weighed a run for president. Through an emissary, he asked to be paid $3,000 for the interview. When the emissary phoned him to say the fee had been refused, he said he had meetings and could not talk.