The surprise decision by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to propose a constitutional amendment, opening up the process of electing the president by direct competitive balloting, may well be a giant step for democracy in Egypt and the Arab World. Western readers used to pluralistic democracy may find it hard to understand what a potentially huge shift this will be in a country used to imposed military rulers for over 50 years.
Many area specialists have long maintained that democratization in the Middle East will not get far until Egypt is fully engaged in the process. And Egypt could not truly set out on a path of democratization without first amending its constitution -- to downsize the pharaonic powers of its president and set limits on his term in office. (Mr. Mubarak is already into his 24th year.) So the announcement is an important first step, one that the regime may assume it will be able to control to its own advantage, but which may not be that easy to contain once people begin to feel empowered. The genie is out of the bottle.
Despite the historical decision, I don't think anybody is expecting a competitive presidential election this September. And, as Saad points out later in his editorial, similar election law changes in Tunisia simply produced sham elections of a different stripe. So even if the opposition could get their act together and field a feasible candidate, there is no guarantee that he would be given a fair shot. But I like Saad's point here that now a greater possibility exists for the regime to lose control over the process. Were a candidate with a measure of popularity to run and lose in elections that were perceived as flawed by the people... well, that's what happened in Ukraine, and it would never have happened had those elections not included multiple candidates.
At any rate, it is not only Egypt that is now embarking on the road of democracy in this troubled region. Turkey at one end of the Middle East and Morocco at the other are already well on the way. The real groundswell this time seems to have come from the close timing and positive outcomes of recent elections in Iraq, Palestine and to a lesser degree in Saudi Arabia. The unprecedented demonstrations against Syrian occupation of Lebanon following the assassination of its former prime minister show no signs of abating, and Egyptian opposition groups have staged increasingly bold marches and other forms of civil disobedience in the last few weeks. The catalyst for their anger was the arrest and detention of opposition leader Ayman Nour at the end of January. That heavy-handed act reinvigorated the homegrown "Kifaya," or Enough, movement against further rule by the Mubarak regime. Suddenly the popular wisdom that Egyptians are passive and afraid to act did not seem to be holding up. An alliance of local, regional and international forces is joining forces against tyranny-as-usual on the banks of the Nile.
Like Issandr, Saad seems to be linking the events in Lebanon with events here in Egypt. What's going on in Lebanon is surely having a ripple effect. When was the last time mass demonstrations toppled an Arab government?
As for the Egyptians no longer being passive and afraid to act... perhaps. But certainly the handful of small demonstrations we've seen thus far don't convince me.
We assume that President Mubarak is more serious. As a measure of sincerity, he needs to order the immediate release of the ailing opposition leader Ayman Nour, and take steps to terminate the 24-year-long state of emergency, which effectively prevents political campaigning to take place. We call on him to endorse term limits of no more than two successive five-year terms. Equally needed are confidence-building measures in a free political process that include open and equal access to the media, currently state-controlled. I announced that I would contest this upcoming presidential election as a way of opening debate on these needed reforms, but I would gladly go back to my role as a private citizen once guaranteed a free and open election this fall.
Saad touches the other principal demand of the opposition with regards to constitutional change: term limits. The other sought after change, which he doesn't mention, are greater constraints on the powers of the executive.
If seriously implemented, these steps will transform Mr. Mubarak's lasting legacy to his people. Along with events in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, it may well usher in an Arab Spring of freedom, so very long overdue