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In a first for Mubarak, criticism gets public airing

CAIRO -- It wasn't odd that an opposition figure should slam President Hosni Mubarak's campaign promises to battle unemployment. The surprise was that it happened on Egypt's state-run television.

During the prime-time ''State of Dialogue" talk show, veteran leftist Nabil Zaki ridiculed Mubarak's pledge to create 4 million jobs in the next six years, then he turned to face Mubarak's finance minister and accused him of taking the problem of unemployment too lightly.

''Mr. Minister does not seem to understand the social and psychological side effects of this dangerous issue," he said.

That kind of direct criticism of Mubarak's regime would never have been heard previously on state-run television -- one of the bastions of the unquestioned power he has held for 24 years.

The fact that it was broadcast shows how much some elements in Mubarak's ruling party want to ensure Sept. 7 presidential elections appear fair, even though no one doubts Mubarak will win overwhelmingly.

The election is the first in which Mubarak faces competitors, although the opposition said any talk of a fair race is a farce, given the ruling party's total domination of the levers of power.

And in the state-run media, old habits die hard, despite promises of fairness.

With a few exceptions, state-owned newspapers gush over Mubarak with stories dripping with praise.

A recent full-page article by Momtaz al-Qut, the newly appointed editor in chief of the weekly Akbar al-Youm, praised Mubarak for his personal sacrifices as president. ''You and me eat whatever we want, but the president doesn't," Qut wrote. ''He might be the only Egyptian who never ate stuffed cabbage, eggplant, or green pepper. He might be the only Egyptian who didn't smell the cooking of molokhiya" -- a traditional Egyptian dish.

At the same time, pro-Mubarak banners cover government buildings in many of Egypt's 26 provinces. Religious leaders -- Muslims and Christians -- take every opportunity to pledge allegiance to the 77-year-old president, and when an Christian priest deviated from the mainstream and appeared by the side of an opposition candidate, he was suspended from serving in the church.

State newspapers are ultimately run by the parliament's upper house, the Shura Council, led by Safwat el-Sherif, a powerful longtime adviser to Mubarak.

Sherif is also seen as a member of the old guard in the ruling National Democratic Party that aims to keep a tight grip on the reins of power. Abiding by Sherif's dictates is key for survival for any newspaper editor.

While some in the newspapers want change, ''there is another side that uses the methods of the old guard in enlisting and directing the masses," said Hamdy Rizq, deputy editor in chief of the state-run magazine Al-Massawer.

Mubarak faces only two significant opponents in the race -- Wafd Party leader Noaman Gomaa and Al-Ghad Party chief Ayman Nour.

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