Egyptian voters will choose their next president Wednesday from among 10 candidates running in that country’s first-ever multicandidate presidential election. There are no candidates powerful enough to challenge incumbent President Hosni Mubarak, however, and it seems certain he will win a fifth term. Some opposition parties have announced that they will boycott the election, claiming that its fairness cannot be guaranteed under present circumstances.
In line with a trend toward democratization in the Middle East, Mr. Mubarak has been advocating the promotion of political and economic reform. But opposition parties and civil groups are charging that he is advocating reform merely for appearance’s sake. If Mr. Mubarak — who has maintained a firm grip on power for almost a quarter of a century — really wants to be viewed as a reformist political leader, then he must set off on a path away from authoritarian politics. The presidential election will be a test of whether his appeals for reform and democratization are genuine.
In a national referendum held in May, a constitutional amendment was approved that changed Egypt’s electoral system from a conventional formula of voting yes or no for one candidate to a multicandidate system. Pressure from the United States, which has been calling for more democracy, and the demands of Egypt’s opposition forces helped persuade the Egyptian government to give way on this point.
Since the end of last year, a movement has emerged in Egypt that seeks to bar the president from serving a fifth term. In particular, a political reform movement initiated by citizens and leftwing groups under the slogan “kifaya” (enough is enough) has been attracting attention. Anti-Mubarak demonstrations are virtually prohibited in Egypt, but a rare antigovernment demonstration was held in Cairo that demanded an end to dictatorial politics, including restrictions on presidential powers and a prohibition on multiple terms. This new kind of civil action is supplementing the conventional activities of the opposition parties.
In May the Muslim Brotherhood — an outlawed Islamic fundamentalist organization that enjoys strong popular support — held demonstrations in which tens of thousands of people across the country called for “complete reform.” About 1,000 people were reportedly arrested. If Mr. Mubarak is serious about responding to demands for democratization, he should allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the nation’s political system.
Several large-scale terrorist incidents have occurred in resorts in Egypt since last year — apparently carried out by Islamic extremists — and the fight against terrorists is a top priority of Mr. Mubarak’s administration. Egypt is said to be a hotbed of radical fundamentalist thinking. It must not be forgotten, however, that behind these terrorist activities lie such factors as economic disparities, unemployment and opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s power politics.
Following terrorist attacks in Sharm el-Sheik in July, Mr. Mubarak, saying that more powerful legislation was necessary, proposed the introduction of a more vigorous new law to replace the current state of emergency law. However, he may have to abandon this proposal because there is a possibility that a new antiterrorist law could be used to suppress demands for democratization. On the pretext of combating terrorism, laws relating to public order can be conveniently used to crack down on opposition groups.
In the face of pressure from the U.S. for more democracy in the Middle East, democratization movements are making waves through the region. In Lebanon, the anti-Syrian camp won a majority of seats in a parliamentary election that took place in the wake of political change sparked by the Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from that country. Saudi Arabia has held its first ever provincial consultative council elections. Iraq’s adoption of a constitutional draft and Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip are also extensions of this trend toward democratization and peace.
Describing the political changes in Lebanon as a beacon of democratization and freedom that would shine on the entire Middle East, a top official of an Egyptian opposition party expressed his hope at that time that the repercussions of the Lebanese events would spread to his country. There is a possibility that the “enough is enough” demands will grow even stronger even if Mr. Mubarak wins a fifth term of office this week.
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