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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Egyptian Democracy?

This headline looks like good news: "Mubarak calls for Egypt's 1st open vote." From the Chicago Tribune's Evan Osnos:
Under pressure to democratize, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak unexpectedly announced Saturday that he will seek to permit the first direct, multiparty presidential race in Egypt's history.

Depending on how it unfolds, an open election could mark a dramatic break from decades of one-party rule in the Arab world's most populous nation.
Mubarak announced the news in a speech apparently carried live on Egyptian TV:
"The election of a president will be through direct, secret balloting, giving the chance for political parties to run for the presidential elections [with] more than one candidate for the people to choose among them with their own will..."

Mubarak said he reached his decision "out of my full conviction of the need to consolidate efforts for more freedom and democracy."
The blogosphere embraced the good news, but even experts cannot be sure what will happen next. Abu Aardvark wrote:
It's great news, and a welcome positive development in Egypt.

It doesn't in and of itself amount to much, though. Whether it is a cosmetic reform aimed at deflecting American and popular pressure or a first step towards genuine reform depends on what happens next.
Since Mubarak has been in power since 1981, this potentially signals a major shift in Egypt's governance. Who knows for sure? There are lots of questions. Back to the Trib:
"Egypt has never had a head of state popularly elected in its 5,200 years of written history, so this something new," said Abdul Monem Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "This is the beginning of the process. Are there personalities who can really run in this situation? . . . How will the media adapt to it? Will there will be presidential debates or not?"
Condi Rice cancelled a trip to Egypt last week after the country arrested a major opposition leader, Ayman Nour. The White House expressed some hope after the announcement, but wants to wait and see if anything actually emerges from this. Human Rights groups agree:
"People will welcome this step, but they are afraid that it will be only one step," said Hafez Abu Saada, director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "We still need to open the society, we need constitutional reform, checks and balances in our government and to build the rule of law."
Previously, a lot of experts have worried that the Bush administration would take a heavy-handed approach, threaten Egypt's foreign aid, and create more harm than good. Obviously, this is something to watch.

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