Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the Iraqi constitutional crisis so far have all but obscured a novel Egyptian spectacle that the government of Hosni Mubarak desperately hopes will be perceived, at least in Washington, as a "free and fair" presidential election campaign. Better look quick: Mubarak has allowed only 19 days for his democratic experiment, and the clock runs out next Sunday.
From a distance, there's little to see, which explains why the campaign has received scant attention in Western and even Arab media. Nine candidates, all but two of them obscure, are officially challenging the 77-year-old strongman's bid for a mandate to extend his 24 years in power by six. But most of the real opposition is excluded by boycott or official ban, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest dissident movement. The only contender who resembles a serious politician, 41-year-old liberal democrat Ayman Nour, still faces trial on trumped-up forgery charges.
State television and newspapers have featured lopsided coverage of Mubarak's campaign while giving Nour equal time with the likes of government-funded hacks such as Ahmed Awad Allah, a fortuneteller who says Mubarak should win. The only other quasi-serious candidate, 71-year-old Noaman Gomaa, was pressured into the race by the regime so as to dilute the vote of Nour, who abandoned Gomaa's liberal but moribund party a couple of years ago.
President Bush made one specific demand about the Egyptian election: that it be monitored by international observers. Mubarak flatly refused. A coalition of independent Egyptian groups seeking to observe the polls has also been denied access. Egyptian judges, whom the government has designated to oversee the balloting, are to decide this week whether to refuse the job, on the grounds that they have no means to prevent the rampant fraud that has characterized previous elections.
So the big picture looks bad. In Cairo, nonetheless, the campaign has been titillating -- even thrilling -- for the minority of Egyptians who follow politics. For the first time in half a century, after all, opposition politicians are holding public rallies without being attacked by security forces, and relatively harsh criticism of Mubarak and his government is being aired on national television. (Gomaa's slogan, which loosely translates as "we are suffocating," was allowed in his newspaper advertisements, but not on TV.)
Nour held his opening rally in his political stronghold, the Bab al Sharia neighborhood of Cairo. Hundreds of supporters clad in orange cheered him as he promised a two-year transition to a parliamentary democracy. Adopting the "as if" strategy once used by the revolutionaries of Eastern Europe, Nour insists on behaving as if the election were genuinely democratic; he openly sought the endorsement of the banned Brotherhood.
Last week the Islamists responded with an intriguingly double-edged statement, calling on their followers to vote (as the government wishes) but saying they should not choose "an oppressor . . . a corrupt person or a dictator" -- by which, the group's leader told the foreign press, he meant Mubarak. Though no one doubts the outcome, that made the election more of a genuine test of strength.
Mubarak's campaign has been interesting in its own right. Guided by the English-speaking, Western-educated advisers grouped around his 40-year-old son Gamal, the old man has been vigorously stumping the country. In implicit compensation for the half-baked election, his English-language campaign Web site (Easy to read in Washington!) promises a long list of political reforms for his next term, including steps to strengthen the parliament, make the judiciary more independent and reform the emergency laws that prohibit most political activity outside of this three-week window.
So how will the inevitable Mubarak landslide on Sept. 7 be received at the Bush White House? Probably with a muted welcome. Bush can only be irritated that Mubarak rejected his appeal for observers, and it will be impossible to describe the election as free and fair. Still, officials here argue, in the Egyptian context, the events of the past several weeks are notable: After half a century of authoritarian rule, the regime founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser and once allied with the Soviet Union has been forced to acknowledge its obsolescence and accept, at least in principle, a transition to democracy.
Freedom isn't on the march in Cairo; at best, it's a slow crawl. But compared with the chaos in Iraq, maybe that doesn't look so bad to the Bush team. Or maybe there just isn't the stomach to insist on more.