Egypt's Tilt Toward Democracy

With Sphinx-like mystery, Hosni Mubarak has cracked open the door for Egypt's first competitive election for president. The mystery lies in how much competition will actually be allowed.

On Saturday, President Mubarak asked parliament to prepare a constitutional change that would allow "official" parties to nominate candidates for president. His party controls 85 percent of the seats in parliament.

An election is planned in September, and Mr. Mubarak has recently faced the first major protests at home and pressure from Washington to move toward democracy.

On the face of it, a free election in the most populous Arab state would be as momentous for the Middle East as January's elections in Iraq. But many clouds hang over this move.

For one, Mubarak recently called such political reforms "futile." It also comes just weeks after the detention of the one effective challenger for the presidency, Ayman Nour, leader of the "Tomorrow" party. (Not yet official.)

Mubarak also didn't promise that candidates would have access to the state-controlled media or that they could hold public rallies. Only parties parliament deems worthy can put forth candidates. At this point, that means the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic group, cannot participate.

Nor did he ask for a change in the Constitution allowing unlimited terms for president. (Mubarak, a former Air Force officer, has held power since 1981, holding four noncompetitive referendums on his rule.) This means he could run again.

Freeing Mr. Nour of the bogus charges against him and ensuring an election meets international standards could turn Mubarak into a Middle East reformer. It's a legacy many Egyptians and others would welcome.

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