New openings for Arab democracy
Mubarak's call for elections in Egypt follows moves in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestinian territory.
BEIRUT AND CAIRO
When Egyptians head to the polls later this year to elect a president, they will face something they have never seen before on the ballots: options.Skip to next paragraph
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In a surprise announcement Saturday, Egypt's long-ruling president, Hosni Mubarak, ordered constitutional changes that would open the door for the first-ever multiparty presidential elections in the world's most populous Arab country. The move is the latest indication of a cautious democratic shift under way in the Arab world.
Since the beginning of the year, the region has seen national elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, landmark municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and unprecedented mass demonstrations in Lebanon calling for an end to Syrian tutelage.
The question remains whether these developments are truly the initial flourishings of a nascent democratic transformation or merely halfhearted measures by autocratic regimes which have no intention of promoting genuine change. What happens next is key, observers say.
"I will be encouraged only when I see a real grass-roots movement emerging," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian social analyst. "What I see happening in Lebanon is encouraging. In Egypt, I can see signs because there are a number of people who have pushed Mubarak into opening up the elections. On the other hand, in Syria unfortunately, it's a very disappointing state of affairs and we seem to be heading in the wrong direction."
Egyptian opposition groups, which have been calling for reform for decades, cautiously welcomed Mr. Mubarak's step, but warned that there was much work ahead to guarantee the election would be free and open to all candidates. "I still can't believe I am talking about open presidential elections in Egypt," says Hisham Kassem, a human rights activist. "If I don't get beaten up or arrested and dumped in a cell, I now think I may actually see democracy here within my lifetime."
Mubarak ordered parliament to adopt an amendment that stipulated that any potential candidate be a member of an official political party, which must also win the endorsement of parliament, a body heavily dominated by his own ruling National Democratic Party.
Many expect that the need for parliamentary approval will block participation by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic party, which could be a powerful contender against Mubarak.
And despite observers' optimism, Ayman Nour, the country's most well-known advocate for democratic reform, was jailed last month on what human rights groups call trumped up charges.
Mubarak has won more than 90 percent approval in four widely discredited referendums held since he took power in 1981. The country has been under so-called emergency law for the past 25 years, giving the president almost unchallenged power. "It is going to be a stimulus, but how much a stimulus will be determined by how much the Egyptians make of this," says Hugh Roberts, director of the North Africa project for the International Crisis Group. "There is still a very long way to go."
Indeed, aside from the situation here in Lebanon, where calls for democracy emerged spontaneously after the assassination of a former prime minister earlier this month, most of the recent shifts toward democracy have been top-down initiatives by regimes eager to appease Washington.