Egypt's 'honest' vote likely to harden ice on ties to Israel

Egypt is about to hold an election that will likely emphasize the country's changes since the death of Anwar Sadat 2 1/2 years ago. Officials and political analysts interviewed in other Arab capitals say the balloting could have major reverberations regionally.

Specifically, one senior official in Jordan suggested, the voting seems likely to reinforce Cairo's distinctly lukewarm approach to the late Anwar Sadat's peace offensive with Israel. The post-Sadat approach has already been dubbed ''cold peace.''

Beyond this, says a prominent newspaper editor in Lebanon, ''The elections may speed up the process of Egypt's reemergence as a leading political force within the Arab world.''

But the main immediate fact about the election - to go by recent statements by Mr. Sadat's successor, President Hosni Mubarak - is that they'll be the freest ones since the toppling of Egypt's monarchy more than three decades ago.

Most opposition politicians in Cairo seem ready to believe Mr. Mubarak's assurances that the voting will indeed be ''free, sincere, and honest.'' Initial skepticism has been undercut by a series of nuts-and-bolts moves, chiefly the rehabilitation of Mr. Mubarak's major political opposition, the New Wafd Party.

Political analysts in Cairo have been predicting that Mubarak's supporters will retain a hefty majority in the reconstituted legislature after Sunday's voting. But they also foresee that as many as 30 percent of the seats could be controlled by the New Wafd and by other, smaller nongovernmental parties. Yet in a country like Egypt, where free elections are a novelty, and illiteracy remains widespread, such predictions are necessarily chancy.

Mubarak seems keenly aware that his decision to go ahead with unfettered balloting is not without risks in a political system where parliament elects Egypt's president with a minimum two-thirds majority.

Mubarak has stressed he wants ''genuine . . . and prosperous democracy'' - but democracy that also ensures ''stability.''

''We want political party life, not a life of blind fanatic partisanship,'' he said recently.

Arab analysts see various likely catalysts for the move to go ahead with the milestone elections. Among those cited are the following:

* The desire to provide a safety valve for dissent at a time when winds of extremism, especially Islamic extremism, are buffeting the entire region.

* The desire to lend democratic legitimacy to his own rule. He, after all, lacks the historic advantages of his two post-monarchy predecessors. The first, Gamal Abdel Nasser, personified the 1952 revolution. Anwar Sadat built an identity as ''hero of war, hero of peace'' through his role in the 1973 Mideast war and the subsequent Arab-Israeli negotiation process.

* The desire to improve Egypt's hand in both regional and international politics. Analysts say the balloting seems likely to provide Mubarak with a visibly ''democratic'' legislature in wide agreement on his course of ''cold peace'' with Israel.

''And to the Arab world,'' says a political analyst in Beirut, ''the message is that Egypt is both less aligned with Sadat's initiative, and more politically stable, than the foes of revived Egyptian leadership in the Arab world would charge.''

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