Democracy on the Nile?

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% 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.