Egypt's Presidential Elections; an Opportunity to Advance Democracy

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Byline: Nir Boms and Aaron Mannes, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

With international attention focused on the Palestinian and Iraqi elections, the October presidential referendum in Egypt will be little more than a re-inauguration for President Hosni Mubarak, who seeks to regain the presidency for the fifth time and to pave the way for his son Gamal to succeed him. Yet, this time Mr. Mubarak could face a real challenger. "If given the chance, I personally want to run to break the barrier of fear and intimidation," Professor Saad al-Din Ibrahim, perhaps the Arab world's leading voice for democracy and human rights, stated. "Not that I have real hopes of success, but I want to show my fellow Egyptians that nothing should be a political taboo." An open political contest in the largest Arab nation would be an enormous advance for democracy in the Middle East. But Mr. Ibrahim will probably not get this chance, because under the Egyptian constitution the parliament nominates the sole candidate and the citizens can only approve by voting either "yes" or "no".

Mr. Mubarak has long deflected demands to enact serious political reforms by arguing that the alternatives to his regime are the Islamic extremists. Now, just as democratic transformation has become the keystone of U.S. policy in the Middle East, the 76-year-old Mr. Mubarak is attempting to follow the Syrian model of hereditary dictatorship by grooming his son Gamal as his heir. To evade this increased U.S. pressure to pursue democratic reforms, Mr. Mubarak has attempted to make himself indispensable to the American interests in the region, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while publicly embracing calls for reform.

In September, Mr. Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party convened under the banner of "New Thought and Reform Priorities." Gamal Mubarak, head of the party's influential policy committee, told reporters, "One-party rule is over." In his closing speech President Mubarak called for the "spread of the culture of democracy," an end to criminal sanctions for violations of the press law, and for the advisory upper house of Parliament to be granted full legislative powers.

But, according to Egyptian Parliament member Ayman Nour, "When the government talks of reform, they are addressing foreign nations." Mr. Nour's efforts to establish a new political party demonstrates the lengths the regime will go to prevent the rise of a viable opposition. …