Homegrown Pressures for Democracy in Egypt

The belief is spreading that reforms will indeed come about, or at least that Egypt's presidential elections in September and parliamentary elections in November will have real significance.

CAIRO - The line of guards around the Supreme Court building in Cairo tightened. One platoon after another took its place, streets were closed, plain-clothes security personnel directed passersby to "keep moving." Everything was ready from the regime's perspective for another demonstration of "the test of democracy."

Another demonstration was scheduled to take place of the Kifaya (Enough) movement, which seeks to generate government reforms and, in particular, bring an end to Hosni Mubarak's reign. The demonstration indeed took place, but not at the Supreme Court. A few dozen people were arrested, but "the government" announced that they were released later that evening.

During the three nights prior to the demonstration, Mubarak presented the story of his life to television viewers. This is how a worthy Egyptian leader looks, he tried to persuade the television audience, as if there were truly a full-fledged election campaign going on. Mubarak went to great lengths to emphasize that his intention of amending the constitution, especially regarding the presidential election system, is not the result of external pressure - that is, American pressure. Reforms, he stated, are an internal Egyptian issue.

At the Andrea restaurant in the Muqattam Hills on the outskirts of Cairo, as in the bar at the Metropolitan Hotel, in newspaper bureaus and political parties in Cairo, there is activity somewhat reminiscent of the cultural salons of the 1920s. The young and the old are considering options for forming political parties. There are signs within Kifaya of divisions along ideological lines. The ruling party is arguing about how to make sure it retains power.

Mubarak himself says that he would be satisfied receiving 60 percent of the vote in the upcoming elections instead of the legendary 99 percent. Conservatives speak about 2011, the year Mubarak's next term is slated to end, as the year of democracy. Liberals talk about irrevocable movment occurring in Egypt.

And here is another sign: A company that sells hamburgers and cheeseburgers has adopted the name Believer (Muamin) and registered it as a trademark. So, even faith can be mobilized.

Egypt is not alone in this. The signs are there of a transition period - Syria's departure from Lebanon, mainly as a result of Lebanese pressure; the new type of elections in Kuwait and Bahrain; the Saudis realize that the formal status of women must change and at least appear to correspond to Western standards; the Palestinian and Iraqi leadership demonstrate an understanding that political, military and religious elites can no longer enjoy unbridled rule and that their survival depends on public support; and there are new arenas for discourse, not only on the Internet, but also via supranational satellite TV stations.

It is a period in which the slow pace of reforms is frustrating for a growing number of citizens. But, at the same time, the belief is spreading that reforms will indeed come about, or at least that Egypt's presidential elections in September and parliamentary elections in November will have real significance.

The new publications sold on the sidewalks of Cairo, no longer the output of just the government or political parties, can testify to this more than anything else. The headlines and main articles no longer deal with Israel or the Palestinians, with Iraq or Lebanon, but with corruption, local government, with ministers who behave in dubious ways and with the culture of "middlemen" in which citizens are dependent on a powerful intermediary to attain their rights. Foreign policy, at least in Egypt, is now only an afterthought.

A color picture of Putin and Mubarak does not quieten the street near the Association of Journalists, where colleagues demonstrate against the arrest of journalists. And a bombastic article about Egypt's good relations with the United States cannot silence the argument a young female student is conducting with a policeman in the street, in which she informs him, not very quietly, that "the sidewalk belongs to her just as it does to him, and that he is a citizen like her."

It only remains now to warn Israel and the United States not to take the credit for fostering Arab democracy.