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Support for ailing president strong in rural Egypt

As turbulent election season gets underway, Egyptians in the Nile Delta prefer status quo.

Egypt elections
An Egyptian woman waits to cast her ballot at a polling station in the Nile delta city of Mansura, 120 kilometers north of Cairo, in 2007. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Among many in metropolitan Cairo, there’s a sense that this is a season of political change.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for later this month and protests in the capital have become uncharacteristically common, as have violent clashes between demonstrators and state security forces.

And with Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, 82, in ill health, the political elite have begun jockeying for his spot. Presidential elections will be held next year. In the meantime, Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a potential presidential candidate, has long been stoking the flames of political unrest.

Many in Egypt’s relatively liberal capital, as well as many in the media, have bought into the narrative that the Mubarak regime is bleeding support and that the president’s son, Gamal, might face a wall of public opposition should he try to succeed his father, as many assume he will.

But in the Nile delta, Egypt’s rural population painted a dramatically different picture, suggesting that support for Mubarak remained strong among the lower and middle classes in the countryside and in small cities.

“Mubarak understands us. He comes from us. He’s from the country. Do you think Mohammed El Baradei has ever visited this region?” asked Mohammed Barakat, a taxi driver from the east delta city of Abu Kabir.

The Nile delta is a sprawling expanse of farmland created by the river’s two main branches and numerous irrigation canals. The delta, which fans out from Cairo toward the Mediterranean Sea, is largely rural, though it is dotted with large and mid-sized cities throughout.

Mubarak was born in this region, which at least partly accounts for the unwavering support he enjoys here.

Some said they supported Mubarak because of his ability to maintain peace and security. Mubarak, they noted, has kept Egypt out of conflict for the entirety of his nearly 29-year rule.

Mubarak “has kept peace in Egypt for 30 years,” said Osama Rashed, a carpenter from the town of Antoniadis, near Alexandria. “Did you see any Israelis when you walked down the street? No. That’s because of Mubarak.”

While many support Mubarak for his modest upbringing and the stability he has brought to Egypt, they also don’t see an appealing alternative.

Some criticized ElBaradei, a darling of many Egyptian liberals and the media, for his perceived elitism and ties to the West. Those criticisms contrasted ElBaradei to Mubarak, who was born into a modest family in the delta.

“No, no, no!” cried Mohammad Fathi , a taxi driver, when asked if he would support ElBaradei. “He’s the reason America went into Iraq. He’s the reason Iraq is destroyed.”

As for Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who could also be accused of elitism — he was raised by a military commander turned president and worked for a time in London, speaking English better than his father — residents said the familial connection was enough for them.

“Hosni is [Gamal’s] father. His father taught [Gamal] about us. He understands us. He understands the farmers,” Barakat said.

In the city of Minuf, campaign banners for steel magnate Ahmed Ezz drape across several main streets in town. Ezz, like Gamal Mubarak, is a member of Egypt’s young and emerging ruling class. Ezz, in particular, has drawn the ire of anti-government factions because of his dual, and often overlapping, roles in the public and private sectors. In addition to his steel business, Ezz is a member of parliament and holds a prominent post in the party leadership.

Many in Minuf, though, said they supported Ezz. Local journalist Mohammed Dabib explained why.

“There is a lot of support for him in the city,” Dabib said. “He doesn’t come here a lot, but he has many welfare programs to help people.”

The fairly open political discussions happening in the delta made Egypt seem almost open and pluralistic. In Alexandria, though, reality struck.

In the town of Itay Barouda, a paramedic, who asked to be identified only as Walid, said that while he didn’t mind Mubarak, he planned to support ElBaradei because it was time for a change.

Was there a risk in publicly supporting ElBaradei?

"No! I can say I like whomever I want,” he said. “I just can't vote for them!"

Editor's note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments, continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project, GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/egypt/101113/gamal-mubarak-rural-egypt