Middle East

Egypt vote: The novelty of democracy in the village

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Media captionCould rural votes decide Egypt vote?

Some things in Egypt have not changed since the time of the pharaohs.

In the countryside, donkey-powered waterwheels still pump the waters of the Nile to irrigate the lush fields that line the river, before the greenery ends abruptly in the Sahara desert.

In politics, no leader has been chosen in a free and fair election in the 5,000 years of the country's recorded history. Until now, that is.

This week, Egyptians begin the process of electing a successor to Hosni Mubarak. The process is not perfect, but it is the nearest thing to democracy that this country has ever seen.

Out in those fields and villages, that impression of stability is an illusion. This country is in the throes of dramatic change, the politicians who are vying to become president are struggling to keep up.

In the old days, someone always used to tell you how to vote - the ruling party, the head of the family, the local imam. Now Egyptians are thinking and speaking freely. Every vote has to be fought for. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Most likely, it is in the villages and countryside outside Cairo where this election will be decided. This is where the majority of Egyptians still live.

Strong man

In the parliamentary elections, rural voters surprised many people last year by voting strongly for the hardline Islamists known as Salafists. But the main Salafist candidate for president, Hazem Saleh Abu-Ismael, was disqualified by the electoral commission.

The Salafist movement is divided on which other candidate to support, and anyway, Egyptians are increasingly thinking for themselves.

Farmer Muhammad Abdul Shakour strolled with me through his land on the edge of the village of Manawet, south of Cairo.

He told me how he was suffering from rising crime and higher prices since the revolution last year. He believed Egypt needed a strong man to take control.

It is a feeling shared by many voters, even long-term supporters of the Islamist opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom are tempted to vote for one of the candidates with links to the former regime.

Inside the house, Muhammad's wife, Amal, is baking bread in a crude oven, fuelled by corn husks.

She says she is making up her own mind who to vote for, not obeying instructions - though tellingly, she turns to her husband before naming her favoured choice.

"I want the problems facing the people to be solved, so that people can manage their life well," she says.

In a nearby livestock market, you hear the same complaints about lack of security and higher prices. By all accounts, life has got a lot harder since the revolution last year.

Yet at the same time, the farmers and butchers and traders gathered here are excited about having the chance to vote. Lively arguments about politics intersperse the discussions about stock prices.

"This election is a very good thing that we are not used to," a cheery-looking butcher, Abdo Khalil, says.

"In the past, it was all about unanimous agreement and referendums. If they said Mubarak, it was Mubarak, if they said Gamal, it was Gamal. This era is over, it is excellent."

Image caption This poster suggests people are no longer prepared to be told who to vote for

Islam or economics?

As to who the best candidate is, everyone has a different opinion.

I asked Abdo Khalil whether he would vote on the basis of Islam, or economics. Who would be the best Muslim, or the most efficient manager for the country?

It was 50-50, he replied. Half of his decision would be based on Islam, half on the policies and character of the candidate.

Some of the last opinion polls before the vote showed more than a third of Egyptians undecided. Even those who have made up their minds have been changing their views regularly. Several polls showed at least four candidates neck-and-neck.

No wonder no-one knows who is going to win.

Democracy may have brought its problems, but it has also brought a delightful unpredictability to politics, the novelty, for Egypt and the Arab world, of a real election.