ON WEDNESDAY Egyptians will vote in the country's first multicandidate presidential elections. The event may be historic, but it won't be democratic. The result is a foregone conclusion: 77-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with autocratic ineptitude since 1981, will receive a mandate for six more years in office. His government hopes for high turnout as a way to legitimize a vote from which most of the Egyptian opposition is excluded; the one or two legitimate challengers look for proof of widespread dissatisfaction with the government. The real results may never be known: Rejecting an appeal by President Bush, Mr. Mubarak has banned international observers and even Egyptian non-government groups from monitoring the polls. The judges who reluctantly agreed to oversee the vote say they can't guarantee that the massive irregularities that have characterized previous elections won't be repeated.
Despite all this, the Bush administration, which has pledged itself to a democratic transformation of the Middle East, already has welcomed the election as "a positive step." The administration publicly pressed Mr. Mubarak for more: not just observers but genuine freedom for opposition candidates to campaign. As it turned out, Mr. Mubarak limited the campaign to 18 days and enjoyed lopsided coverage by the state-controlled media. His most spirited challenger, Ayman Nour, faces trial next month on trumped-up charges. Yet rather than use the considerable leverage of the $2 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, the administration chose to accept the refusal of its autocratic ally to stage a free vote. That decision will be widely noticed around the Middle East, especially by other autocrats calculating how much liberty is necessary to satisfy Washington.
Administration officials defend their retreat by pointing to the genuine novelties of the brief campaign: opposition rallies not broken up by police; newspaper articles and advertisements openly criticizing the government; signs of an awakening among the long-quiescent Egyptian intelligentsia. "The three-minute freedom," one prominent poet calls it. Mr. Mubarak has stumped the country in his shirt sleeves and astounded Egyptians by directly asking for their votes. He has also promised a long list of reforms, including a strengthened parliament, more freedom for the judiciary and a reform of the emergency law that prevents most public political activity.
The real test of the election, and of the Bush administration's policy, will be whether Mr. Mubarak delivers on these promises -- and whether the limited liberty of the past several weeks will outlive Wednesday's elections. Mr. Mubarak could liberalize upcoming parliamentary elections by allowing party lists and legalizing more parties; he could call off the legal persecution of Mr. Nour; he could allow more opposition media. In the best case, this week's election might be viewed as the first in a series of "positive steps" leading to genuine democratization. But it won't happen unless Mr. Bush is willing to place more pressure on the Egyptian regime than he has so far.