Democracy Slowly Comes to Egypt

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President Hosni Mubarak addressed his supporters Sunday night at Cairo's Abdeen Palace, seat of the royal dynasty of Mohammed Ali — the only man in the past two centuries to rule the land of the ancient pharaohs longer than Mubarak has. "With our blood, our soul, we will sacrifice for you!" shouted the crowd. After the speech, a guy in the crowd pushed a paper in my face: It was a collection of poems extolling the leader's virtues. "O Mubarak! You are a mountain that does not shake with the wind!" read one of the lines.

Such a scene may have be more reminiscent of Saddam Hussein than of Thomas Jefferson, but Egypt's presidential election on Wednesday may yet signal the twilight of the country's age of dynasties. Nobody expects Mubarak to lose the vote, whether the balloting is honest or has to be rigged in his favor. Despite the inevitability of the result, however, many Egyptians feel the election has breathed new life into Egyptian politics after decades of autocratic rule.

Mubarak's Abdeen speech was not another lecture from a dictator, but an appeal from a politician for the votes of citizens. For the first time in Egypt's history, the President faced not a yes-no referendum on his presidency, in which he'd be assured of 99% or so of the tally, but a contest in which he had to defend his record before the citizenry against rival candidates. Mubarak has been hop-scotching around the country, telling crowds, "I stand before you asking for your endorsement." Close on his heels, nine challengers have been giving raucous speeches, sometimes accusing him of tyranny and corruption, strictly taboo accusations less than a year ago. "The genie is out of the bottle," Saadeddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist once imprisoned for his pro-democracy activities, said in a TIME interview. "There is no way this regime can maintain one-man rule as it was."

Although Mubarak claims that he initiated reforms in Egypt more than a decade ago, he seems to have caught the freedom bug recently. Last January, at age 77 and after 24 years in power, he finally conceded longstanding opposition demands to amend the constitution and permit a multiparty presidential election. Apart from growing pressure for internal reform from the Bush administration since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Mubarak was confronted with the birth of a protest movement last December known as Kiyafa, or Enough (as in, "We've had enough of Mubarak!"). He proposed the constitutional change two months later, days after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice abruptly canceled a visit to Egypt in evident displeasure with another regime crackdown on opponents. Rice piled on the pressure again in June, choosing Cairo for the venue of a landmark speech calling for greater Arab reform. Acknowledging that Mubarak had finally "unlocked the door for change," she warned his regime to hold a free and fair election.

Eager to show Egyptians as well as Washington policymakers that Egypt is a practicing democracy, Mubarak joined the fray with all the trappings of a slick Western-style campaign. His trips were backed up by a campaign HQ in Cairo, staffed by media experts, pollsters, lawyers and college professors, including one with a Ph. D from an American university who once worked as a congressional aide on Capitol Hill. To fill out Mubarak's political rallies, the campaign bused in students wearing Mubarak T-shirts, caps and "Mubarak 2005" buttons — young men who as often as not were in it for the free gear or the meal they were provided. Mubarak sought to make the issue of reform his own: Besides the usual promises, to create 4.5 million new jobs, construct 500,000 new homes and double salaries for government employees, his platform, available in Arabic and English, calls for an array of constitutional and legislative reforms that would decrease his powers and increase those of the cabinet and parliament.

Despite Kifaya's calls for a boycott, on the grounds that the election is a farce designed to maintain Mubarak in office with the pretense of a democratic vote, some of Mubarak's staunchest opponents lept at the chance to push the margin of freedom as far as they could. Among them is Ayman Nour, a 41-year-old member of parliament and former journalist who is Mubarak's most outspoken critic and who promises to supervise the adoption of a new democratic Egyptian constitution and then call for new elections within two years. Security forces jailed Nour for 44 days earlier this year on what his supporters and human rights activists call trumped-up charges of forgery relating to the formation of his new Al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. Despite private objections from the Bush administration, his trial is scheduled to go ahead after the election. The other prominent challenger is law professor Noaman Gomaa, 71, leader of the New Wafd Party, a nationalist group formed in 1919 that promises to liberalize the economy and enact political reforms. The Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated group with widespread appeal among Egyptians (its candidates, run as independents, constitute the biggest single opposition bloc in parliament) called on its supporters to vote — but not for a "tyrant." Because the Brotherhood is prevented from fielding a candidate of its own, this call has been interpreted as an exhortation to support opposition candidates.

Lest anyone get the impression that Egypt will actually hold a free and fair election, candidates like Nour point out how the system is stacked against them. Mubarak's National Democratic Party machine ensured that government patronage workers get to the polls, while the state-controlled media has heavily favored the incumbent's campaign. The Mubarak-controlled parliament only amended the constitution four months ago, giving opposition parties, weakened by decades of one-party rule, little time to attract and mobilize supporters. Even if they had more time, Mubarak refused to allow any new voters to register, effectively shutting out millions of Egyptians who had become interested in voting for the first time in their lives since they now had a choice of candidates. The regime barred international election observers and placed barriers in the way of Egyptian poll monitors.

Nonetheless, many see the election, after the fall of Saddam in 2003 and the Cedar Revolution against Syrian domination of Lebanon this year, as a further crumbling of the edifice that has guarded authoritarian regimes in the Arab world for half a century. They hope that Egyptian elections in November will produce a more representative parliament, and that voters will have a real choice in the next presidential contest, in 2011. After surveying the overflow crowd of 5,000 people at a rally in the northern city of El Mahla El Kobra, Maram Mazen, 19, a law student volunteering with the Nour campaign, was left brimming with hope. "It's a big step to have someone challenge the president," she said riding the campaign bus to the next gathering. "A year ago, I couldn't even imagine something like this happening. I don't think people will be quiet anymore."

After Mubarak's speech at Abdeen Palace, a man who told me he was a teacher discreetly slipped me a tiny piece of paper and then walked back into the crowd, like a spy in a cloak and dagger operation. "Pass this message," it read in scribbled red ink. "There is no democracy in Egypt and there is no dignity for the human being in this country. Those people inside the rally own Egypt, but those outside are the powerless. Signed, An Egyptian Citizen." Such clandestine protests are no longer all Mubarak has to contend with, however. Even his very limited version of a democratic process has invited his citizens to imagine a different political, and begin taking their first steps towards in its pursuit. The significance of these baby steps can't be underestimated against the backdrop of the decades of political stasis over which Mubarak has presided. Even if Egyptians cannot oust their regime in this presidential election, they are overcoming their fear of demanding change.—With reporting by Amany Radwan/Cairo and Lindsay Wise/Alexandria