The surprise decision by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to propose a constitutional amendment that would allow direct and competitive presidential elections may be a giant step for democracy in Egypt and the Arab World. Westerners used to pluralistic democracy may find it hard to understand what a potentially huge shift this will be in a country accustomed to military rule for over 50 years.
Under the current system, Egyptian citizens can only show up on the day of a presidential referendum every six years and say yes or no to the single name that appears on the presidential ballot. This explains why someone like Mubarak always received over 90 percent of the vote, albeit amid indifferent turnout. Syrian and Iraqi strongmen have done even better with this system, no doubt because they demanded that the names and addresses of voters be put at the bottom of each ballot.
Many people have long argued that democratization in the Middle East will not get far until Egypt becomes fully engaged in the process. 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. Mubarak, after all, is already in his 24th year as president. So the announcement that he wants competitive presidential elections is an important first step.
The regime may assume that it will be able to use the process to its own advantage, but events may not be that easy to control once people begin to feel empowered. The democratic genie is out of the bottle.
In any case, Egypt is not the only country in this troubled region that is now embarking on the road of democracy. Turkey at one end of the Middle East and Morocco at the other are already well on their 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 Syria's occupation of Lebanon following the assassination of its former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, show no signs of abating. Egyptian opposition groups, too, 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 the ailing opposition leader Ayman Nour at the end of January. The government's heavy-handed behavior reinvigorated the homegrown Kifay (Enough) movement, which has demanded an end to 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 uniting against tyranny-as-usual on the banks of the Nile.
The recent wave of popular pressure appears to have shaken the regime. Only a month ago, Mubarak dismissed demands for constitutional reform as "futile." But, whatever combination of events brought about his change of heart, election initiative should be welcomed. It is a necessary -- but insufficient -- first step for overhauling Egypt's stagnant political system.
Egyptians are already wary of token reforms a la Tunisia, where longstanding President Zine El Abidin Bin Ali created a caricature of a constitutional amendment that appeared to open the door for competitive presidential elections, but then staged a sham contest with a few handpicked ?"opponents." In previous Tunisian presidential referenda, Bin Ali routinely received 99 percent of the vote; he now got 96 percent.