Mubarak's Democracy Bombshell

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Surprises are rare in Egyptian politics, where democracy is an affair carefully managed by the government, and President Hosni Mubarak's 24-year presidency has never been contested at the ballot box. That's why the announcement, Saturday, by the 76-year-old Mubarak that he wants the constitution amended to allow more than one candidate to run in September's presidential election registered as something of a political earthquake in Cairo. Rather than yet another presidential referendum in which his is the only name on the ballot, Mubarak is proposing a direct, competitive presidential election — the first in Egypt's modern history.

The announcement, say Egyptian political analysts, follows months of growing outspokenness from Egypt's political opposition and within civil society to allow others to run against Mubarak. It also comes against a backdrop of growing pressure from the U.S. for political reform and democratization in Egypt. Indeed, the announcement followed hard on the heels of a decision by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel a trip to Egypt, reportedly in response to the arrest last month of parliamentary opposition leader Ayman Nour — who had been pressing for the right of Egyptians to run for president when Mubarak seeks a fifth six-year term later this year. Recent elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories have also encouraged Egyptians to demand the right to democratically choose their own leaders.

An increasingly assertive Egyptian movement for change and reform has since last December taken the word kefaya (meaning "enough") as its slogan, and organized sit-ins and demonstrations against a fifth term for Mubarak, and to denounce the principle of presidential inheritance, marking their opposition to the possibility that Mubarak be replaced by his younger son, Gamal. Just last week, some demonstrators even took the risk of shouting "down with Mubarak" in a heavily policed demonstration outside Cairo University.

The recent demonstrations are a sign of mounting domestic pressure for change in the political system. Some individuals, such as the seasoned pro-democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and outspoken feminist Nawal Saadawi have even sought to challenge Mubarak by nominating themselves as presidential candidates.

Over the past few months, at Mubarak's recommendation, his ruling National Democratic Party has engaged in a public dialogue with leaders of the country's major political parties to discuss reform and democracy. The outcome lead to an acknowledgement by the NDP that while constitutional and democratic reform were urgent, the process needed more time. Party leaders argued that it was too late to change the constitution before September to allow for candidates to run against Mubarak, who has been in power since the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in October 1981. Even members of opposition groups had expected that the constitution would not be changed before the upcoming elections, and their aim had been to create enough opposition noise to pave the way for future change.

Egyptian analysts Mubarak's announcement goes further than anyone had expected in opening up space for opposition candidates. Speaking in Menoufia governorate, his birthplace, where he was touring some factories, Mubarak said that it was now up to the political parties to select candidates from within their ranks to run for president.

A few hours after the speech, the heads of the People's Assembly (parliament) and the Shura Council agreed to review and debate Mubarak's proposal in the coming sessions before voting on passing it into law. The president's statement was greeted by a standing ovation from members of parliament. But analysts say Mubarak's proposal has stunned opposition parties as well as most members of his own party.

"My guess is that only a handful from Mubarak's most inner circle knew of the announcement beforehand," said Dr. Hassan Abu Taleb, assistant director of Al Ahram center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Mubarak has strongly struck back at the opposition and took the challenge to real action on the ground rather than words," he added.

Analysts also note that the coming weeks and months will be critical in determining the significance of the change. It remains to be seen whether the opposition political parties and civil society movements will be freed of all existing restraints in challenging for the presidency, particularly in terms of the right to hold rallies and other forms of public campaign activity, as well as access to the media. A major question-mark hangs over the status and intentions of the outlawed but popular Muslim Brotherhood group. Although banned as a political party, its members have run as independents despite many restrictions. Today, the 17 independent legislators affiliated with the Brotherhood are viewed as the largest among the small opposition groupings in the current parliament. It remains to be seen how they will be affected by, and react to the new political space opened up by Mubarak.

"Mubarak's decision is definitely a giant leap forward for Egyptian democratic life, but the coming period is crucial in determining the true effectiveness of this initiative," says Hassan Abu Taleb. Still, once the gates have been opened on the principle of democratic choice in Egyptian political life, they may not be as easily closed again.