My summer vacations in Cairo usually have been mock exercises in public diplomacy, with yours truly playing a reluctant Karen Hughes. I am not a Republican or even a U.S. citizen, but I'd find myself dodging conspiracy theories or lending a sympathetic ear to a cousin who proudly remembers memorizing the names of every U.S. state but who hates America so much now that she never wants to see those states herself.
But not this summer.
There were no arguments over the United States, Israel, Palestine, Iraq or any of the other "hot spots" that used to dominate every meal and spill over into tea, coffee and dessert. This time, all conversations were about a small but active opposition movement in Egypt that since December has focused on ending the dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak.
I have never heard so many relatives and friends take such an interest in Egyptian politics or -- more important -- feel that they had a stake in them. This opposition movement holds almost weekly demonstrations. It draws Egyptians from across the political spectrum: leftists, liberals and Islamists. And, more worrisome for Mubarak, it has solid roots in the country's middle class: Journalists, lawyers, judges and university professors have all thrown their hats in.
It is brimming with Egyptian youths who have known no leader other than Mubarak but are all too familiar with the legacy of his 24-year dictatorship: corruption, unemployment and fear. There isn't much that Egyptians can do about corruption and unemployment; those who turn out for the demonstrations are fearless. Several times during my visit I heard "we have broken the barrier of fear" -- the sweetest words of my trip. The demonstrators risk beatings, arrest and intimidation of their families.
Protests are banned under emergency laws that have been in place since Mubarak took over in 1981 after Muslim militants assassinated Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian regime says the laws are essential to fight terrorism. The Sharm el-Sheikh bombings on July 23 showed the sad fallacy of thinking that laws alone can stop terrorism. And the vicious beatings of anti-Mubarak demonstrators on May 25 and July 30 showed how those emergency laws are too often used to quell anti-government activity.
In Cairo I met reform activists and was lucky enough to march with 300 fellow Egyptians in a demonstration through Shubra, a working-class neighborhood weighed down by the unemployment and poverty that are constant concerns for many Egyptians. It was the first time since the anti-Mubarak protests began in December that protesters had taken their message to the street.
Riot police, who had previously confined demonstrations to one spot, were nowhere to be seen. Most of us knew it was because two days before the protest, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had admonished the Egyptian government for the May beatings and said that peaceful supporters of democracy should be free from violence.
The U.S. administration must not take its eyes off Egypt. It has exerted unprecedented pressure on the Mubarak regime, but everyone I spoke to in Cairo wondered just how serious the Bush administration was when it said that it would no longer follow a decades-old policy that favored stability and the support of dictators at the expense of democracy. Most were skeptical but also determined to take advantage of any maneuvering room they could get in Egypt's suffocating political climate.
I am under no illusion that Egypt is on the doorstep of democracy, nor do I doubt that Mubarak will win the presidential elections on Sept. 7. But there is a strong sense that this is the time to lay the groundwork for real reform in the years ahead.
U.S. pressure and the internal opposition movement pushed Mubarak to announce this year that Egyptians would for the first time be able to choose from several candidates for president in September. For years, it was either yes or no for Mubarak. Still, the rules governing who can be a candidate make it almost impossible for independents to run.
Ayman Nour of the Ghad Party and Noaman Gomaa of the Wafd Party are the two most widely known people to make it onto the list of candidates. Official campaigning begins on Wednesday. If Mubarak wins a fifth term, as expected, he will stand to become the longest-ruling leader in the country's modern history.
His stranglehold on Egyptian politics has ensured that no real alternatives exist. But this is where his claims that he is accepting reform can truly be tested: Will he lift the emergency laws and make room for a truly vigorous political environment in which those alternatives can exist and grow?
Mubarak must not be allowed to get away with cosmetic change because he claims to be fighting terrorism or because the U.S. administration cannot decide how serious it is about change in the Middle East. Demonstrations and a thriving political culture are in the collective memory of Egyptians. Our presidents since the 1952 coup and revolution -- Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat and now Mubarak -- shared both an armed forces background and a determination to end the vigorous politics my country enjoyed before the advent of their regimes.
As Egyptians we are proud of that history but we sadly regret the political lethargy and decay that are the weeds of those successive dictatorships. We want our country back.
The writer is a New York-based columnist for the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. Her Web site is www.monaeltahawy.com.