It's hard to imagine Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a change agent. During the 24 years he has ruled this country, he has displayed a military man's passion for stability and a corresponding wariness of democracy. His Egypt has often symbolized the political stasis of the Arab world.
But unlikely as it sounds, the 77-year-old Mubarak won reelection this month on a platform of political and economic reform. The fact that even the pharaonic Mubarak is running as a democrat illustrates the power of the reform movement in the Arab world today. The movement is potent because it's coming from the Arab societies themselves and not just from democracy enthusiasts in Washington.
I can't predict whether Mubarak will deliver on the promises he made during his campaign. I can see all the reasons why he should and all the reasons why he won't. But what's unmistakably clear in the aftermath of Egypt's first semblance of a multi-candidate presidential election is that the country's old authoritarian system has broken apart. I doubt Mubarak could put it back together even if he tried.
This used to be a country where people were very careful about what they said in public. It was basically a one-party state, and the price of keeping your job -- and sometimes of staying out of prison -- was to stay safely within the unwritten but universally recognized red lines. The state-run Egyptian press was often the worst offender -- pretending to be independent but maintaining an almost Stalinist sycophancy toward the ruler. Happily, those old habits of deference are changing.
During several days of conversations here, I found people remarkably frank in their comments. Just as interesting, political activists across the spectrum described the situation in Egypt in similar terms. Though many see the one-sided election as a joke (Mubarak won with 88 percent of the vote), they all see Egypt as changing, and they all agree it will be hard to stop the momentum of change.
Let's start with the most extreme critics of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood. I met Ali Abdel Fatah, one of the Brotherhood's leaders, over coffee at the Syndicate of Journalists, which has become a haven for activists in recent months. While he denounces Mubarak's election victory as fraudulent, Abdel Fatah thinks the democratic movement in Egypt is real. "We appreciate pluralism and we insist on it," he says.
Abdel Fatah says he has been imprisoned 11 times for his views, and the Brotherhood is still banned from running openly as a political party -- but he wants to play in the new game. He plans to field about 150 "independent" candidates in November's parliamentary elections and expects that about 30 of them will win, roughly doubling the group's unofficial representation in parliament.
Puffing a hookah pipe in a coffeehouse on Imad El-Din Street is Amin Soliman Eskander, one of the co-founders of the protest group known as Kifaya. Even though the election is over, the group (whose Arabic name means "Enough!") is still organizing demonstrations. "The national atmosphere no longer allows oppression," he explains. Eskander has been imprisoned seven times because of his dissent. Asked whether he thinks political change can come peacefully in Egypt, he says, "Yes, of course."
In a cafe on the bank of the Nile, Hisham Kassem, who runs a fiery new independent newspaper, explains that the old days of docility are over. The newspapers are running headlines denouncing Mubarak and his family that would have been unthinkable a year ago. "I'm sure he grits his teeth that we're out there criticizing him, but we can't turn back," Kassem says.
The Mubarak camp doesn't disagree with the view that the rules of the game have changed. Mohamed Kamal, a key political adviser, says the old insistence on stability has given way to a realization that Egypt needs change. That's the importance of Mubarak's agreement to a multi-candidate election this year, he argues. "The president was always up on the mountain, surrounded by people who wanted to protect him. He came down from the mountain to ask people for their vote."
One of the brightest lights in Mubarak's government, Industry Minister Rachid Mohammed Rachid, agrees that the election symbolized the idea of accountability. "When Mubarak ran, he took it seriously, put together a program and a list of deliverables. This has never been done before."
The Mubarak regime is certainly capable of reneging on its promises. But there's so much pressure for change, from so many different directions (including the Bush administration), that it won't be easy. "I don't think there is any turning back," the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, tells me. And for the moment, I'm inclined to take him at his word.