Analysis / Mubarak Needs a Tell-tale Turnout

Egypt's citizens go to the polls today to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments allowing - for the first time - for more than one candidate to run for president.

In contrast to the past, colorful stories about buying votes were aired before the vote. There are stories of vote contractors offering free meals, bottles of cola, Viagra and, of course, cash for voters' participation in the referendum. Egyptian Information Minister Anas Al Feki reportedly instructed the 39,000 employees of Egyptian television to demonstrate today in support of President Hosni Mubarak, as a counter-balance to opposition demonstrations.

The proposed amendments are supposed to make it easier for presidential candidates to run and be elected in direct elections and give other candidates at least a chance to contend. However, the referendum has thrown the government and especially the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) into a power struggle with the opposition - the left-wing parties, the Moslem Brotherhood, the al-Rad Party and other activists objecting to the amendments.

The opposition, which pushed Mubarak to accept the amendments, now says they are not enough and are merely cosmetic steps to appease the West. The opposition is threatening to boycott the referendum to delegitimize it. The NDP predictably says the amendments are a far-reaching historic step.

A power struggle between the government and the opposition was expected before September's presidential elections and November's parliamentary poll but it has erupted early in the referendum debate. On the practical side, despite the boycott call by some opposition parties, the amendments will undoubtedly pass in the referendum. The question is how much support they will muster.

In a state where the difference between the support for the ruling party and president are measured in tenths of percent - between 99 percent and 99.9 percent - the turnout for the referendum and the rate of support will be significant. They will provide the first indication of the overall support the president can expect in September and the ruling party in November.

Mubarak, who has not yet announced he will run for a fifth term as president, is waiting to see how the voters receive the amendments will be received.

Although the amendments do not enable any Egyptian candidate to run for president, they have forced Mubarak to launch a propaganda campaign in a series of television interviews to Egyptian and Arab media. His security forces are fighting against opposition activists and rounding up members of the Moslem Brotherhood. The opposition voices, the daily demonstrations, the struggle over the referendum and American pressure are a new and unusual development in the Egyptian political scene.

Hence the tremendous effort of Mubarak and the ruling party to win a significant majority in today's referendum. This is the real focus of the political battle in Egypt, whose ruling party could find itself battling to keep its undisputed status.