Hosni Mubarak, who has been the President of Egypt for the last 24 years, gave the impression that he was finally giving in to the popular street movement, Kifaya, meaning "Enough!" against his dictatorial rule. And President Bush and his administration were quick to take credit for it. But it was all a smokescreen.
The constitutional amendment that was announced on February 26 by Mubarak was nothing more than a farce. In theory it allowed for other candidates to run in the presidential elections, but in practice Mubarak ensured that it would not make any difference to his re-election. The amendment limited the nominations to the leaders of political parties that have been registered for five years and hold five percent of parliament's seats - thus barring the small opposition parties, as well as the parties suspended or denied legal recognition such as the hugely popular Muslim Brotherhood from taking part in elections.
In addition, little time was provided for campaigning by opposition candidates, with the nominations beginning on July 29 and the elections taking place on September 7.
More serious was the overall weakness of the Egyptian election process, which was fraught with irregularities ranging from supervisors filling out ballots to voting in the name of dead.
Hossam Issa, an Ain Shams University law professor says that contrary to official statistics, the number of people voting in Cairo has in fact never exceeded 11 percent of those registered. Moreover, Egyptians are only allowed to register between mid-October and February of each year, and thus those enthused were not able to vote this election year.
Early in January in an interview with Al Arabiyya satellite channel Mubarak said," Presiding over Egypt is not a simple matter, and neither is leaving the presidency." Then he went on to say that he would not "fabricate a theatrical play" acting out an extension of his mandate, while admitting he was capable of doing so.
And in fact, the pro-Mubarak demonstrations that he claimed he would never orchestrate, surfaced in March. They started by countering anti-regime protests but soon became violent. News reports described them beating Kifaya members with their fists and wooden poles that carried Mubarak banners, tearing clothes, pulling hair, and groping female demonstrators as police stood by indifferently or participated in the assault. Even the journalists covering these incidents were not spared these attacks.
Observers reported busloads of hooligans transported from poor neighborhoods were handed Mubarak placards and banners at these demonstrations. An interview published in the Al Araby newspaper revealed that they were promised food and water and 20 Egyptian liras to participate.
Ridiculous were the campaign gimmicks and associated paraphernalia strung across Egyptian streets since April. They were sponsored by co-opted parliamentarians, and toady businessmen, bearing such emotional slogans, as "From our depths we have chosen you, no one else will do." Posters and banners declare, "Unanimous yes with love ... Muhammad Hosni Mubarak and his son and his grandson." Yet another banner reads, "The fetus in his mother's womb says yes to Mubarak and yes to [People's Assembly Speaker] Surur.""
The irony is that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice gave a big speech in June outlining criteria by which the fairness and openness of the elections in Egypt would be judged. It augured a new approach for real reforms in keeping with President Bush's repeated declarations of avowed support for democracy in the Middle East.
She then announced the specifics. That since President Mubarak "unlocked the door for change", he had to put faith in his own people and give Egyptians "the freedom to choose." The September presidential election and the following parliamentary elections in October and November "must meet objective standards that define every election."
She went on to spell election standards. Opposition groups "must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation. And international election monitors must have unrestricted access to do their jobs."
Most importantly, she criticized the emergency laws enacted since 1981 that Mubarak has used to harass, lock up and otherwise to silence all opponents. "The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees - and when independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice."
However, Mubarak did none of the above. Emergency decrees are still in place. He also rejected any independent election monitors and observers. Thus all hurdles were stacked against those who were attempting to compete in the so-called "historic" election.
Reflecting on the above, Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the reputed Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund writing September 4 issue of the Washington Post questions: "How to explain U.S. policy these past few months? Of course, it is always easier to give strong speeches than to implement them... But it is not as if the United States lacks leverage - to the tune of more than a billion dollars a year in aid. If the administration was not prepared to play hardball with the Egyptian dictator, why lay down specific conditions for him to flout?"
He goes on to say that perhaps it is due to the concern that it "might produce a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular opposition party." But if that is case, "then Bush officials should stop talking so much about democracy and go back to supporting the old dictatorship. It was precisely that kind of logic" ... that "helped produce so much radicalism..." And "Bush supposedly has rejected that kind of logic."
As the decisive moment in Egypt passes without change, many will ask what exactly, is new about the administration's approach. Arab peoples watching carefully to see whether Bush is serious about his commitment to democracy will have reason to doubt it. As we all know: actions speak louder than words.
Siraj Mufti, Ph.D. is a research and freelance journalist active in interfaith and Islamic communities.