Reforming Egypt

September 09, 2005

FOR STARTERS, Egypt's president did not win 99.9 percent of the vote, the usual tally for Middle Eastern autocrats. In voting Wednesday, incumbent Hosni Mubarak handily defeated a field of nine candidates. But the real winner in Egypt's first contested presidential election was leading opposition candidate Ayman Nour, who reportedly received about 12 percent of the vote. His was a credible showing after two decades of referendum-only votes in which Egyptians could cast a "yes" or "no" for the sole candidate, Mr. Mubarak.

Political observers - or cynics - may discount Mr. Nour's achievement in an election where the 77-year-old incumbent controls the government, the state-run media and appointments to the electoral commission. Under such tight government control, the only way Mr. Mubarak wasn't going to win would have been if he had died before Wednesday's vote.

But Mr. Mubarak's decision (encouraged by the Bush administration) to hold a contested election gave Mr. Nour and other candidates a chance to speak out and be heard. Their reach may have been limited - turnout was apparently low - but the contest jolted the opposition movement into action. Kifaya, a leading reform group known by the Arabic word for "enough," organized a protest march this week that drew 3,000 Egyptians. That may seem insignificant in a country of 77 million but the significance was this: The police watched from the sidelines as protesters marched downtown; the government didn't interfere.

True democratic reform won't take hold until Egyptians are ready and able to demand it. Education is part of the process, but so is a recognition that Egyptians should have the right to speak freely and meet without fear of reprisals.

Citing voting irregularities, Mr. Nour wants to hold the election again. Complaints included offers of food for votes and election officials "helping" citizens cast their ballots - or worse, forcing them to vote for Mr. Mubarak. The allegations should be investigated, but Egypt's reform movement would be better served if Mr. Nour used his popularity and base of support to launch a voter-awareness drive - turnout was estimated at only 30 percent. He should also organize other opposition groups to press for more democratic reforms. Mr. Mubarak campaigned on a pledge to initiate such changes and now he must deliver on that promise.

The election may be over, but the march for democracy has just begun.

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