CAIRO -- Their faces bob and flutter, catching the light off the Nile, zipping past on buses or on the sides of the motorized rickshaws known as tuk-tuks that buzz through the market dust of poor neighborhoods.
Egypt’s first free presidential election is a week away. The 13 candidates -- those with name recognition and those whose mention draws puzzled expressions -- have been set loose upon the land with staffs and stickers, flags and banners, and sound bites that sometimes go astray. The political season has bloomed in a nation that for more than 60 years was ruled by military men mouthing pretensions of democracy.
The candidates have marched from Suez to Aswan and deep into Cairo’s traffic-clogged heart. They have appeared on TV -- once unthinkable for anyone but the now deposed Hosni Mubarak -- rhapsodizing on cursory prescriptions to fix an ailing nation, one that has endured an uprising but remains uncertain over what freedom means in the Arab world.
What one sees, whether the support is for former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa or liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, is a country slipping into a new and exciting skin. The military still holds sway and many Egyptians are skeptical that the next president will be free from plotting by remnants of the old guard. But there is a sense that the revolt that brought down Mubarak is edging closer to its ideals.
Some polls suggest that about 40% of Egyptians remain undecided on a candidate. But polls in Egypt are often unreliable; those at the front can unsurprisingly end up in the rear. The leaders now are Moussa and Aboul Fotouh, trailed by Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, who has boasted that he will win 60% of the vote in the first round.
Even with the Brotherhood’s extensive grass-roots network, that doesn’t seem likely. Morsi’s campaign has also reportedly promised to enter the Guinness World Records by forming the planet’s longest human chain, stretching from Aswan in the southern desert to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast.
Morsi has been “welcomed with much fanfare in Egypt's governorates,” wrote the Ahram Online news website. “In the province of Gharbiya, Morsi's supporters held a 15-mile-long human chain to welcome him. The distance between Alexandria and Aswan is more than 1,000 kilometers [621 miles].”
That would be a lot of hand-holding for a man many sum up as uncharismatic.
Some candidates prefer the riskily cinematic. Aboul Fotouh recently bounded onto a stage as flames flashed from silver scaffolding and fireworks exploded in the sky. He launched into a vibrant speech while a technician, trying ever so hard not to be noticed, slinked onto the stage and stamped on embers that threatened to set the carpet alight. Smoke wisps rose and blew away.
Besides the perfecting of campaigns, there is much left unresolved, and Egyptians, ever the purveyors of conspiracy, have much to whisper about.
The writing of a new constitution is on hold. The court’s verdict on Mubarak, charged with complicity to commit murder in the deaths of protesters, is expected early next month. The country’s military leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, told the nation Wednesday that Egypt's vote would be a “model” of a fair election.
A new mural in Cairo suggests otherwise: It depicts a military officer with the sinister mouth of Batman’s Joker dangling the puppets of faceless candidates. Summer is a month away. Egyptians of all political and religious persuasions say it promises to be a long one.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: An Egyptian walks past mostly defaced posters of Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq in Cairo on Wednesday. Credit: Manu Brabo / Associated Press