By Craig Whitlock and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 12:00 AM
CAIRO - As Egypt comes under pressure to hold free and fair elections, democracy activists are expressing growing doubts about whether a ballot slated for September is feasible, and fearing that it could set the country's reform movement back even further.
While millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets to clamor for freedom and the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, the country's pro-democracy forces have been so battered and marginalized by decades of repression that advocates say it would take many months - if not years - to lay the groundwork for open and credible elections.
In recent days, U.S. officials have also moved to highlight the risks inherent in staging elections too quickly. Their assessment has been at the heart of the Obama administration's decision to continue backing Mubarak as he clings to power.
Under Egypt's constitution, the country will be required to hold a presidential election within 60 days if Mubarak quits or is pushed out; only candidates handpicked by Mubarak's party would be eligible to run.
Many of those urging a speedier exit for Mubarak acknowledge that the country is not prepared for quick elections. Some of them support the idea of a transitional government that might take power soon and then wield power for as long as a year, putting off a presidential election until early 2012.
"I'm shocked by what the Americans say - that Mubarak must stay as president so we can prepare for new elections,'' said Negad El Borai, a human rights advocate and lawyer in Cairo. "Mubarak must leave, and then we can talk."
Borai said a caretaker president and prime minister should take over from Mubarak and oversee a coalition government, perhaps for as long as a year, until a proper election can be held.
But there is no guarantee that such a process would go smoothly in a country without democratic institutions. Elections staged last year in Afghanistan were widely viewed as flawed; in Iraq, talks to form a government dragged on for months after parliamentary balloting.
The last time Mubarak promised a fair election in Egypt, for a parliamentary vote in November, ballot boxes were stuffed, cash bribes were handed out, voters were menaced by thugs and international observers were banned from the country. Most of the opposition simply gave up, and Mubarak's party kept the parliament in a landslide.
"We need a new constitution and complete changes of the whole political scene," said Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of the Democracy Review, an academic journal and a rare independent voice in Egypt's political scene. Mubarak's ruling party and the handful of token opposition parties, she added, "should disappear, because they do not represent anyone."
Egypt has no laws governing campaign contributions and advertisements. Independent polling is also illegal, making it almost impossible to predict who would benefit if Egyptian voters were given a free choice.
"Nobody has a clue what anybody thinks or wants in this whole country," said one pro-democracy activist in Cairo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.'It could be done'
Among the institutions that advocates say are essential to free elections are political parties, campaign laws, an independent judiciary and a culture of free speech. Given the absence of these in Egypt now, U.S. officials have implied that it is better to let Mubarak stay until his term ends in September than to have a rushed election beforehand.
"You don't want to get to September, have a failed election and have people say, 'Wait a minute. What was the point of all of this?' " Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday. "You want to help set the stage for the kind of credible, legitimate elections that are going to produce winners that people will believe - whether they voted for them or not - represent Egypt."
Asked whether Egypt could accomplish that by September, Clinton told reporters: "It's up to them. But I think, with a concerted effort, with the kind of timelines and concrete steps I'm calling for, it could be done."
Activists in Egypt, however, said the Obama administration is being naive if it thinks Mubarak will suddenly become a true supporter of democracy and embrace far-reaching changes while he remains in office.
There is no consensus among the loosely organized demonstrators regarding who or how many people might serve in a caretaker role, or how those people might be selected.
The United States has advocated on behalf of Omar Suleiman, Egypt's longtime spy chief, whom Mubarak elevated to vice president last month. Suleiman has been leading negotiations in recent days between the government and opposition groups. Although some favor Suleiman as a temporary replacement for Mubarak, many protest organizers reject the idea.
On Tuesday, Suleiman announced that two committees will be appointed to review constitutional changes to enable "the peaceful and organized transfer of power." But he gave few details, and there is widespread skepticism among demonstrators about his intentions. Suleiman has declared that Egypt is not ready for democracy, a statement that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called "not helpful."
The legal obstacles to credible elections are huge. For starters, Egypt would have to revoke the state-of-emergency rule that Mubarak declared when he took power in 1981; it prohibits more than three people in a political organization from meeting without permission. Vice President Biden called Suleiman on Tuesday to urge that Egypt "immediately" rescind the law.
"I don't think there is much intent by the authorities in Egypt to actually make that transition, from fully manipulated to fully fair" elections, said Les Campbell, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit pro-democracy group. "I suspect what they may have in mind is to go from fully manipulated to carefully controlled."'No . . . half revolution'
Typically, a proper election would be run by an electoral body independent from the government. But in Egypt, elections are run by the Interior Ministry, which not coincidentally also oversees the secret police. In the past, judges provided limited oversight of voting, but their powers were dissolved after they exhibited a measure of independence in the 2005 election.
Under pressure from the George W. Bush administration, Mubarak allowed the National Democratic Institute and another U.S.-funded nonprofit, the International Republican Institute, to open offices in Cairo in 2005. Since then, however, his government has tightly restricted their activities, forcing them to hold all training sessions outside the country and handpicking the people they are permitted to meet.
For many demonstrators, however, the legalistic and logistical questions of how to transform Egypt into a full-fledged democracy are premature. As long as Mubarak remains, they said, it cannot happen.
"Either we have a full revolution or no revolution. There is no such thing as a half revolution," said Mustafa Munir, 23, a medical student. "We are not scared of the future. We are sure there will be freedom and respect and justice, regardless of the details."
Sheridan reported from Washington. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Cairo contributed to this report.