Candidates start campaign in Egypt's first multicandidate presidential election

Campaigning in Egypt's first open presidential election was kicked off Wednesday, Egyptians awoke to find billboards praising President Hosni Mubarak plastered up overnight around Cairo.

Mubarak's government has promised a fair contest as the man who has ruled Egypt for 24 years faces competitors for the first time. The United States has pressed Mubarak - one of its closest allies in the Mideast - to ensure a clean vote, part of Washington's broader campaign to promote democratic reform in the region.

But the overpowering edge Mubarak's ruling party holds in organization and influence was clear from the start on the first official day of campaigning.

In the early hours, workers quickly put up Mubarak billboards, with pictures of the 77-year-old leader looking healthy and robust in a shirt and a tie, emblazoned with the slogan "Mubarak: leadership and crossing to the future."

Mubarak's campaign team, which hired a private advertising company, put out seven such billboards - six in Cairo and one in the coastal city of Alexandria, said a campaign media officer who did not want to be named because she's not the official spokesperson. Another 50 smaller banners were also displayed across the country, and about 20,000 T-shirts bearing Mubarak's image have been prepared for distribution, she said.

No large billboards for Mubarak's competitors were seen. Besides the official campaign posters, business owners and private supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party hung banners praising the president.

"With all the love, the people of Boulaq support President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak," declared a yellow banner at ann entrance to Cairo's Boulaq neighborhood, with a photo of Mubarak surrounded by a red heart.

Another sign proclaimed Mubarak "the leader of the Arab nation," showing a large Mubarak standing above smaller pictures of other Arab leaders.

Mubarak is facing nine opponents in the Sept. 7 vote. His main challengers are Noaman Gomaa, leader of the opposition Wafd party, and Ayman Nour of the al-Ghad party - but Mubarak is considered the overwhelming favorite to win a fifth six-year term in office. Previously, Mubarak has been re-elected in yes-no referendums in which he was the only candidate.

Nour and Mubarak were expected to lay out their political agendas in speeches scheduled for later Wednesday, the AP reported.

Mubarak's speech would be aired on the privately owned Dream TV and only excerpts of it would be broadcast on state-run television in the time slots allocated to him as a candidate, NDP campaign member Mohammed Kamal said, adding Mubarak's campaign activities were all funded and carried out by his party, without using state employees.

While the government has depicted the opening of the race to competitors as a major step toward democracy, the opposition has dismissed the vote as a sham, sayinig it is heavily stacked against them on nearly every level. Several major opposition parties are boycotting.

"The issue of equal opportunity is not conceivable," El-Sayed el-Badawy, the Wafd party secretary-general, said in a meeting with reporters Wednesday.

"Having President Mubarak at the helm of the National Democratic Party, and the way the party is integrated in the state makes officials - without instructions from President Mubarak - regard the NDP as the state party and Wafd as a party that is against the state," he said.

He said the campaign had faced numerous obstacles from low-level officials in hanging posters and distributing publicity material in different provinces. There were no Wafd banners in the streets of Cairo yet because security officials warned sign painters against writing any banners before Wednesday, he said.

He said the Wafd sent Egypt's largest daily, the pro-government Al-Ahram, a paid advertisement promoting Gomaa, but that it refused to publish it after objecting to a sentence in the ad that read: "We've had it."

An Al-Ahram official said that the paper's legal department believed that some words in the ad may violate the regulations on campaign ads. He said an agreement was reached with the Wafd that the ad will appear only once, in Thursday's edition.

Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour, another Wafd official, said the root of the problem the opposition faces in the race is the perception entrenched in the minds of many Egyptians that the president was "a deity."

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