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Five kilometers of people - adults, but an even larger contingent of children, Egyptian flags in hand - fanned out this past Saturday along the road to Mansoura, a city in the Dakahlia province of Egypt. Cheers of "Long live Mubarak" and banners bearing the words "Mubarak for Egypt" welcomed the distinguished guests. Heading the entourage was President Hosni Mubarak and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. After them came a series of government ministers, the governor of Dakahlia, bureau chiefs and other officeholders. One wondered if there was anyone left to run the Egyptian government that day.

The reason for the fanfare was the dedication of a new court building complex in Mansoura and a stadium at Mansoura University named for Mubarak. Dr. Magdi Abu Rian, president of Mansoura University, which has 21,000 students, went out of his way to make the guests feel welcome and said everything he was expected to say. He called Mubarak the builder of new Egypt, and called upon him to remain in his seat for another term.

That day, Morsi Atallah, editor of Al-Ahram al-Masai, gave his column the headline "The people love Mubarak," and the government press reported that president was preparing for other state visits around the country. In another country, it would be thought of as outright campaigning: Saturday - Dakahlia; Sunday - Cairo; Tuesday - the Sharm summit; Wednesday - possibly Fayum, and so on. In other times, there would also be no need for the citizens of Dakahlia to demonstrate their support, or for placards urging Mubarak to run again. But things are changing in Egypt. At the moment, the crack in the glass is very fine, but it runs across the window from one end to the other.

The summit in Sharm el-Sheikh is not divorced from domestic Egyptian politics. It touches upon two issues that are very important to Cairo at the moment: Arab relations with Washington, especially Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. These issues have a vital bearing on Egypt's standing both in the Middle East and the West, and hence on Mubarak's unchallenged bid for reelection. To a large extent, the Sharm summit is Mubarak's one-man show. Over the past two years, he has worked tirelessly to keep on top of things and to prevent a situation in which Israel withdraws unilaterally from Gaza. Sharon's policy has forced Mubarak to adopt a unilateral stance himself, and to clear Sharon's name - at least in Egypt. The warmer relations that have grown up between Israel and Egypt since the summer, Egypt's willingness to deploy troops on the Gaza-Egyptian border and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's friendly talks with top Egyptian officials have created the necessary backdrop.

Israel and Egypt have a joint interest in avoiding unilateral withdrawal. It was Arafat's consent that everyone was waiting for. With Arafat dead and gone, the valve opened. Egypt was able to operate without inhibitions, and so it has. Syria has been taken on as a silent partner in charge of influencing the Palestinian organizations, Abu Mazen received a state welcome in Damascus, and Syria continues to make positive noises about its willingness to further the political process with Israel.

Showcasing accomplishments

Meanwhile, the crack in the glass has spread in another direction. The Israeli businessman Azzam Azzam, who served eight and half years on spying charges, was released from prison. Shortly after that, Egypt signed a free trade zone agreement with Israel, and the Egyptian press has carried official notices inviting factory owners to register. A number of articles criticizing the agreement were swallowed up in the cheers of support duly published by government newspapers. This week, opposition papers quoted the Israeli media to the effect that Mubarak was planning to visit Israel after Sharm. Once, this would have elicited an immediate Egyptian denial, or the president would have planted a question in the mouth of some journalist, answering it himself with a remark like, "only when I think my visit will be helpful in promoting the peace process." This time, the presidential palace has been notably silent - no confirmation, but no denial either.

The successful conclusion of the Sharm summit, the declaration of a mutual cease-fire, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad adopting the mainstream policy of the PLO - these are tremendous political accomplishments that Egypt will want to showcase when its foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and its intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, are in Washington. It is an achievement that Egypt will also want to exploit to promote Syria's interests in the United States and in order to get the reins back in the Middle East.

At the same time, Mubarak will have to manage his affairs wisely. He will have to draw a correlation in America's mind between the new relationship with Israel - about which the Palestinian newspaper Al-Hiyat al-Jedida wrote "Egypt bids cold peace farewell" - and the idea that Mubarak is irreplaceable. Such a link means that Mubarak will have to do something about "spreading democracy," as it is known in Washington.

Three months ago, for the first time in two decades, the political parties court of the upper house of the Egyptian parliament, responsible for endorsing new parties and monitoring the activity of existing ones, approved a new party called Al-Ghad ("Tomorrow"), headed by Ayman Nour. Around the same time, three well-known personalities in Egypt - psychiatrist and feminist Dr. Nawal Saadawi, sociologist Dr. Saad al-Din Ibrahim and former Egyptian MP Mohammed Hassanein - announced their intention to run for president, calling for constitutional amendments that will allow for this.

Meanwhile, Egyptian security forces have arrested Ayman Nour on charges of perjury and forging membership applications, but the party itself has not been shut down. Activists of the Egyptian Movement for Change, who held a demonstration calling for a referendum on the issue of presidential elections, were not detained either. Their goal is to abolish the system whereby parliament nominates a single candidate and the people vote "yes" or "no." They are demanding that Egypt inaugurate direct elections for president.

Unprecedented debate

For the first time since Mubarak came to power 23 years ago, a debate over the election system is dominating the airwaves and being held out in the open. The ruling National Democratic Party, headed by Mubarak, has declared that he is its candidate for another five-year term - his sixth - but Mubarak himself has not yet announced his final decision. Running a country is a very complex matter and requires experience, he said in a recent interview, hinting that he has no intention of giving up the job for which he feels he is eminently qualified. "He who becomes president of Egypt - that's the will of the people. [If] the people don't want you, it's no use. And if the people want you, you won't be able to leave," he added.

"With 70 million Egyptian citizens," observed Al-Din Ibrahim, his potential rival, "you should be able to find at least a million people who are qualified to run the country."

Mubarak's other potential rival, Hassanein, minces no words: "I will ask the U.S. and Europe to keep up the pressure until Egypt becomes a democracy." Hassanein, a former Nasserist who owns a giant pump factory, was in the territories two weeks ago as an Egyptian observer. When he left, he held up his passport stamped with an Israeli visa for all to see. Back in Egypt, he told everybody about the roads and services and infrastructure development he saw in Israel. To his critics, who accused him of normalizing relations with Israel, he replied: "The Palestinian Authority elections are a slap in the face to Egypt. Under Israeli occupation, an election took place the likes of which I've never seen in Egypt."

Will the crack continue to widen and create a shake-up in Egypt's creaky old political system? In the coming year, it is doubtful that any such thing will happen. While American pressure on Egypt to become a democracy, combined with growing pressure from within the country, may create some movement, at this stage there are not enough Egyptians who really want change, or who are not afraid of it. Mubarak is still the strongman, and Egypt's economic and social problems loom so large there seems to be no one else capable of tackling them.