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.
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.
In his inauguration speech in January, President Bush said a cornerstone of his foreign policy in his second term would be to promote democracy, particularly in the Arab world. Last year, he unveiled an initiative designed to encourage Arab countries to embrace democracy. But the initiative met with a hostile reaction from most Arab countries who viewed it as interference in their domestic affairs.
Critics say that the elections in Saudi Arabia lack substance due to the limited power of municipal councils and the fact that women are barred from voting. The Saudi government argues that the pace of reform has to be measured carefully because of the deeply conservative nature of the kingdom.
Still, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal suggested over the weekend that women may be allowed to vote in future elections. "The commissioner of elections said after the elections for municipal councils that they went so well and testing the water proved so appealing that the commissioner is going to suggest to the government to have women vote in the next municipal elections," he told BBC television.
Despite Arab criticism of Washington's ambitions for democratizing the Arab world, some analysts say that the tentative reforms would not have happened without US intervention. "It's because of the Americans, let's face it," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst. "These regimes didn't give a damn about the views of their people not so long ago - Mubarak's decision I link directly to Bush's inauguration address. The leaders realize things have to change in terms of the public image."
However in Lebanon, the pressure for change is coming from the grass-roots level. The tiny Mediterranean country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon over the past two weeks, a cathartic reaction of national outrage at the Feb. 14 assassination in a bomb explosion of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister. Most Lebanese blame Syria for the killing because of Mr. Hariri's alliance with the Lebanese opposition.
Amid tight security, Lebanon's parliament plans to hold Monday a no-confidence vote in the pro-Syrian government. Although the increasingly embattled government is likely to win the motion, it is struggling against mounting public opposition and near daily anti-Syrian rallies.
The protests, which have transcended sectarian lines and brought out the usually reticent middle classes, have been generally good-natured and peaceful events, imitating the mass demonstrations more commonly found in Europe, most recently in Ukraine. On Saturday night, thousands of protesters carrying Lebanese flags formed a human chain linking Hariri's grave in downtown Beirut to the scene of his death on the seafront corniche 1.5 miles away. Other young protesters have erected tents in Martyrs Square, near Hariri's grave, and have vowed to stay put until Syria withdraws from Lebanon.
"What's encouraging is that this is an attempt to bring about regime change though nonviolent means," says Chibli Mallat, professor of international law at St. Joseph University in Beirut. "I see this as part of the democratic transformation in the Middle East."