- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

The winner of Egypt’s presidential election on Sept, 7 is well-known in advance: Hosni Mubarak, in office the last 24 years. Turnout will be low; the results sure: Mr. Mubarak will be overwhelmingly elected to his fifth term.

However, rather than just another sordid excuse for democracy as happens too often in too many countries, this could be Egypt’s last corrupted election, as thousands of democratic activists work diligently for truly representative government. After 53 years in power, the military regime launched in 1952 with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup against King Farouk may be in its last days, and few things could be better for Egyptians or for the Bush push for democracy.

Such change comes none too soon. “The president [Mr. Mubarak] has sucked the life out of the political parties,” observes leading political analyst Mohammad El-Sayed Said. “There is no serious candidate in the field running against him.”

A one-sided amendment of the Egyptian constitution’s Article 76, rammed through the rubberstamp National Assembly and approved in a May referendum in which perhaps 12 percent of eligible voters voted (versus 53 percent claimed by the government), allows only candidates of recognized political parties to run for president.

In a country that had known vibrant political activity, this might have made sense. In Egypt, however, the only viable potential candidates are independent figures who have made their mark outside the country’s desiccated political framework. Current secretary general of the Arab League and former foreign minister Amr Moussa could be a serious candidate, as could intelligence chief Omar Suleyman.

Despite the foregone conclusion of the Sept. 7 presidential polls, activists are not forlorn. Mostafa Bakry, editor of opposition newspaper El-Osboa, though deeply dissatisfied with the situation, believes amended Article 76 has launched the democratic process. “Mubarak will be elected. They will see to that. But the tide is turning, and they cannot turn it back.”

Mr. Bakry and most other observers look forward to November elections for the 444-member National Assembly. In 2000 elections, only nine opposition members were elected. Another 43 “independent” candidates were actually fronting for the ruling National Democratic Party and switched to the government’s side shortly after election.

This will not occur in November, analysts predict. A senior Cairo businessman says, “The government today is more fascist than in Nasser’s time. Most voices of dissent have been quieted. … They allow just a few selected dogs to bark. But just below the surface, things are happening. The government cannot bar genuine opposition candidates in November, and we have a good chance to elect half the members, this time around.”

If that happens, the NDP will be hard-pressed to buy more than a few opposition parliamentarians. With a truly representative legislature, the stage will be set for competitive presidential elections six years hence, when Mr. Mubarak, now 74, will almost certainly not be a candidate.

“Then there can be a serious campaign for the presidency,” says opposition leader Ayman Nour, the only significant candidate against Mr. Mubarak in this race: “I am running to make a stand for democracy in Egypt. If we make a respectable showing, it will be seen as an important protest vote.”

One of 10 candidates running against Mr. Mubarak in September, Mr. Nour is not given a chance. One of the Egypt’s best-informed political analysts sums up: “If there were an honest … election, Nour might have a chance. As it is, he’ll probably receive 20 percent of the vote, and the government might have to stuff the boxes in his favor.”

There are still a number of possible twists, before and after September’s elections. Dr. Taher Helmy, president of the Egyptian American Chamber of Commerce and close confidant of Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, believes the president should name a vice president, installing him following his re-election. Moreover, he does not believe Gamal should immediately succeed his father. “There should be an interregnum,” he says. “Preparing an orderly transition to democracy would be the greatest legacy President Mubarak could possibly have.”

Gamal Mubarak assuming the presidency is a serious possibility. His mother Suzanne favors direct succession, with husband Hosni resigning during his next term. “The publicity for Gamal in the government-controlled press is incredible,” notes an observer. “He is the shadow of God on Earth. Just last week, Ibrahim Kamel, president of the Presidential Council, said on cable television: ‘I would vote today for Gamal.’ Well, of course … who else is there?”

Gamal Mubarak, however, is not running this time. Despite his father’s virtual lock on re-election, the November parliamentary polls can mark Egypt’s turning from a “hereditary democracy” to truly representative government.

Kamal Aboulmagd, distinguished Cairo University law professor, leading Islamic scholar and vice president of the government’s National Council on Human Rights observes: “Rulers do not give up power unless they must. … We all must beware, beware, beware. Things are changing.” Granted, some informed observers cannot envision a smooth change.

But with restraint and a little luck, Egyptians seem at last to have a serious chance for representative government. Says one activist: “The odds are still long, but we will give it our best.”

The importance to Bush administration policy of a truly democratic Egypt cannot be exaggerated. Baghdad and Cairo represent the Arab and Islamic world’s two great centers of learning. Establishing free-market democracies in Iraq and Egypt would activate the domino effect for most if not all the region.

John R. Thomson, a businessman, diplomat and journalist in the Middle East for more than three decades, recently visited Egypt to assess the political situation.

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