Cairo spring?




Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has never lost an election. Indeed, he's never garnered less than 90 percent of the popular vote. Unfortunately for Egyptian democracy, he's always run unopposed.
Which is why Mubarak surprised everyone with a startling televised announcement on Saturday. Speaking at a university in the Nile Delta, where he grew up, the 76-year-old leader, who has been in power since Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists in 1981, announced: "I have asked the parliament... to amend Article 76 of the constitution, which deals with the election of the president."
If the 454-member parliament – which Mubarak's National Democratic Party dominates – agrees, the constitution would be modified to "allow more than one candidate" to compete in the September 2005 presidential elections.
On paper, Egypt already has some of the structures necessary for fostering freedom. For instance, civil liberties are constitutionally enshrined: "Freedom of opinion shall be guaranteed. Every individual shall have the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally, in writing, by photography or by other means of expression within the limits of the law."
But the "limits of the law" are constraining indeed. Only registered parties may compete in elections, and Mubarak gets to decide whom to register.
Mubarak's announcement was greeted by the "authorized" opposition Al-Wafd party as "historic." One of its leaders, Muhammad Ulwan, said: "For the first time since the days of the Pharaohs, the Egyptian people will choose their ruler." Isn't it nice to have authorized opponents?
The timing of the announcement is hardly coincidental. Mubarak has been under intense pressure to reform. Rumors that he is grooming his son, Gamal, 41, to succeed him have brought people into the streets of Cairo. A demonstration in December attracted 50. Another one last week brought more than 500 into the streets denouncing Mubarak's authoritarian rule.
In a city where people are intimidated into silence by the secret police – constitutional guarantees notwithstanding – such numbers are significant.
Outside pressure for reform has also been helpful. President George W. Bush rapped Egypt in his State of the Union address. During his European trip Bush called on Cairo to "lead the way" toward democracy in the Middle East. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a visit to Egypt because of the continued imprisonment of a key opposition leader.
That leader is Ayman Nour, 40, head of the liberal, and legally registered, Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party which holds a mere seven seats in the parliament – hardly a threat to Mubarak's rule. Nour, who is a diabetic with a history of heart trouble, reportedly ended a hunger strike in the wake of Mubarak's announcement. Arrested January 29, he has since been "interrogated" on trumped-up charges.
As the Post reported Sunday, men in "dark suits" also roughed up members of Nour's party in order to break up a political meeting at a Cairo hotel.
Mubarak has to at least feign interest in reform. He can't openly disdain the messages sent by the elections in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority and even the restricted municipal polls which took place in Saudi Arabia: Reform is in the air.
Yet it is hard not to be cynical. Ibrahim Eissa, an Egyptian columnist, called Mubarak's moves a "deception" aimed at improving his image with the US. "He is keeping everything... unchanged... imprisoning the opposition, the state [still controls] the media, and political parties exist just on paper."