ONE OF THE modestly positive features of Egypt's unfree presidential election two months ago was the set of promises made by the 77-year-old incumbent, Hosni Mubarak, on his way to being awarded a six-year-extension of his 24 years in power. Mr. Mubarak, a de facto dictator up until now, promised to allow a free press and independent judiciary, lift emergency laws that stifle political activity, and reduce presidential powers in favor of a more freely elected parliament. In short, he offered the prospect of a slow but steady journey by Egypt toward liberal democracy. The first test of his commitments, and of the country's direction, came last week, with the beginning of parliamentary elections. The results so far are discouraging.
Though it has received little attention outside Egypt, the parliamentary vote is in some ways more important than the much-discussed multi-candidate presidential election Mr. Mubarak allowed. The results of several rounds of polling between last week and early December will determine whether the national legislature can evolve from its current rubber-stamp status and also whether the next presidential election will be more competitive, because to nominate a presidential candidate an opposition party will need at least 23 of 444 seats. So far, neither development looks likely. Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party, which holds more than 85 percent of the parliament's current seats, won 24 of the first 28 seats that were decided.
Ayman Nour, Mr. Mubarak's only serious challenger in the presidential race and the greatest obstacle to the presidential ambitions of his 41-year-old son, was meanwhile declared the loser in a Cairo district that elected him twice before. Mr. Nour, a secular liberal, was relentlessly bullied by Mr. Mubarak's thugs and slandered by his state media; election observers reported numerous irregularities in his district. Not surprisingly, the designated winner is a former state security police officer. As a practical matter, Mr. Nour will now have little chance of competing in the next presidential election; if current trends hold, only Mr. Mubarak's party will have the right to nominate a candidate.
As in September, Mr. Mubarak has leavened these lopsided and obviously manipulated outcomes with modest improvements in the electoral process. Independent Egyptian electoral observers are being allowed to monitor the balloting (and have reported numerous irregularities); transparent ballot boxes were used to lessen the opportunities for stuffing. Perhaps most significantly, Mr. Mubarak allowed some 140 candidates of the banned Muslim Brotherhood to campaign openly under the slogan "Islam Is the Answer." The group, which now has 17 representatives in parliament, may win a few more seats -- but since it remains unrecognized, it too will be unable to nominate a presidential candidate or operate effectively.
It would be convenient for Egypt and for the United States if Mr. Mubarak's government were to lead a top-down democratization. Battered by reverses in Iraq, the Bush administration seems eager to pretend such liberalization is taking place; it praises each of Mr. Mubarak's gestures as a step forward. Yet this election has simply added to the evidence that the Egyptian regime will never embrace genuine democracy on its own. Change will have to come from the independent pro-democracy movement that has sprouted in Cairo this year. It is that movement, and not a failing autocratic regime, that the United States should be nurturing.