MILLIONS OF Egyptians voted in a historic multi-candidate presidential election on Wednesday -- but the results will never be known. True, 77-year-old President Hosni Mubarak is widely believed to have obtained the most votes and will be duly sworn in next week for a six-year extension of his 24 years in power. But Egyptians will never learn what part of the electorate turned out to vote, or what percentage chose one of the opposition candidates who were allowed 19 days to openly campaign against Mr. Mubarak. That's because Mr. Mubarak excluded foreign monitors from the polling stations and reversed a ban on local watchdog groups only on Election Day, making it impossible for all but a handful to participate. He allowed his National Democratic Party to commit such visible irregularities as busing voters to the polls, standing over them while they cast ballots or offering lottery tickets in exchange for votes. Finally, the president decreed that all the results be tabulated at a central location by his handpicked nominees. When the totals are finally announced in a few days' time, there will be no reason for anyone to take them seriously.
The Bush administration, which cites the democratization of the Middle East as one of its top priorities, persists in describing this exercise as "a positive first step." It has some reason to do so: The election campaign, though absurdly short, resulted in unprecedented opposition rallies and criticism of Mr. Mubarak in newspapers and on television. The incumbent promised a long list of political reforms as part of his own campaign, including more freedom for the media, independence for judges, greater power for parliament and a reform of the emergency laws that have made him a de facto dictator. Still, Mr. Mubarak's insistence on heavy-handed steps to control the election's outcome -- despite his inevitable victory -- leaves the measuring glass of this Egyptian election considerably less than half full.
It also raises urgent priorities for Egyptian reform, and the Bush administration's handling of Mr. Mubarak, in the coming weeks. That's because Egypt has another election coming this fall, for parliament, that in many ways is more important than the presidential poll. Not only is the legislature promised more power, but a recent constitutional change provides that only parties with parliamentary representation of 5 percent or more may nominate candidates in future presidential elections. If the upcoming vote is fair, it will drastically reduce the suffocating authority of the ruling party; if it is not, the election of Mr. Mubarak's successor will probably be as lopsided and unfair as this week's vote.
President Bush need not ask Mr. Mubarak for radical change -- only for steps that liberal activists in his own party favor. These begin with allowing slates of parliamentary candidates to be elected by proportional representation; the current system of more than 400 districts makes it impossible for opposition parties to compete. Next Mr. Mubarak must allow more of the real Egyptian opposition into the process; he could do this by granting the pending registration of the Center Party, a moderate Islamic grouping that would attract many supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Most important, Egypt's next vote should be free and fair, and certified as such by both local and international monitors. Holding such a vote won't threaten Mr. Mubarak's newly extended tenure as president, but it will make it more legitimate. It won't make Egypt a democracy, but it would make it more likely that the regime's promise to gradually lead the country in that direction would be honored. Considering the billions in American dollars that continue to prop up Mr. Mubarak's government, and the importance of translating Mr. Bush's rhetoric about democracy into reality, it shouldn't be too much too ask.