Sunday, February 27, 2005

Are the days of the pharaohs numbered?

The following is an editorial that appeared in The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is reproduced here with permission.

"For the first time since the days of the pharaohs, the Egyptian people will choose their ruler," reckons Mohammed Ulwan, the assistant head of the Egyptian opposition Al-Wafd party. Ulwan, using colorful and perhaps exaggerated language, was referring to proposed changes in the Egyptian Constitution, discussed in Parliament on Saturday, which would allow multi-candidate presidential elections.

Until a few days ago, President Hosni Mubarak was opposed to such a move. It was a surprise, then, when the veteran 76-year-old president - on a de facto throne for 23 years now and widely expected to run for a fifth six-year term later this year - did a volte-face on the matter. He has, of course, been encouraged along the way by the United States, which has been pushing hard for democratic reforms throughout the region, and by a political opposition that has recently grown bolder. In explaining this sudden reversal, one Egyptian analyst has suggested Mubarak, in the face of building pressure, "decided it is more dignified and practical to go on the initiative."

Whatever the motivations of the Egyptian president may be, the fact remains that, in the Arab context, this is a landmark development, albeit a long-overdue one. The eggshell of the status quo has been pierced - and it has indeed been a very tough eggshell to crack. Herein lies the caveat to optimism: No details are known about the proposed constitutional amendments, and they are unlikely to be known for months.

However, well-founded speculation has it that restrictions on who can run as a presidential candidate are likely to apply, and this raises the specter that Mubarak's "dignified and practical initiative" could end up being little more than a disguise to further state control. What is being presented in the interests of political reform could, in fact, be revealed as a monster if it is naught but democratic window dressing while the existing seat of political power remains effectively unchallenged.

Thus it is important at this crucial juncture for the opposition to participate in the reform process, and not just protest. There is no excuse for not doing so, and they must make their efforts public. Ayman Nour, the jailed leader of the opposition Ghad party, broke off his hunger strike on Saturday at the news of Mubarak's announcement. While obvious displays of commitment are valuable, the collective opposition must engage the evolving Egyptian political process with constructive contributions that will see the promise of change fulfilled.

At the end of the day, it is both wise and encouraging to realize the reform process that appears to have begun in Egypt - although only the first step in the proverbial 1,000-mile marathon - can only be brought to fruition by Egyptians. As with January's elections in Iraq, it is Egyptians braving the odds who will make their political system more pluralistic and open.