CAIRO, Egypt—For the first time in decades, there's excited talk of change in the streets of Egypt's sprawling capital of 17 million.
Protests against the government of President Hosni Mubarak, although small, have become an almost weekly occurrence. Journalists and human rights groups are showing new vigor. There are even predictions that the 76-year-old Mubarak's rule is coming to an end after more than 23 years.
"Whatever the result, it is the return of political life" to Egypt, said Bahgat Korany, the director of Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo.
What direction that political life will take is unclear, however.
President Bush has made democracy in the Muslim world his No. 1 foreign policy priority, and in his February State of the Union address he called on Egypt to lead the way.
Yet senior Egyptian government officials, leading opposition figures and independent analysts in Cairo say they have no idea whether the ferment in Egypt will produce the pro-Western democracy the White House wants.
A string of three terrorist attacks on tourists in Cairo last month suggests that radical Sunni Muslim Islamists, some of them allied with Osama bin Laden, could try to capitalize on any unrest, much as Shiite clerics used the fall of the Shah of Iran to seize power. Egypt crushed Muslim radicals in the 1990s but hasn't eliminated the poverty and repression that fueled Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other groups.
What happens in Egypt—the Arab world's most populous country, one of America's most important Arab allies and the recipient of more than $50 billion in U.S. aid since 1975—will profoundly affect the rest of the Islamic world, Israel and the West.
Egypt's peace treaty with Israel cost Mubarak's mentor and predecessor, Anwar Sadat, his life, and renewed hostility between the two countries would torpedo any chance of negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Egypt's Suez Canal and Sumed Pipeline together carry some 3.8 million barrels of oil a day from the Persian Gulf to Europe and the United States, and major disruptions would likely restrict supplies and drive oil prices higher by forcing tankers to sail all the way around Africa.
Finally, an anti-American turn in Egyptian politics could leave the United States struggling to cope with a rising tide of unrest or Islamic militancy in the Arab world.
Even if Mubarak wants to leave a legacy of democracy—which many of his people doubt—there appears to be no easy path without jeopardizing Egypt's stability. After a half-century of autocratic rule, the country has no strong democratic institutions.
Mubarak surprised almost everyone Feb. 26 by agreeing to amend Egypt's Constitution to allow the country's first multi-party elections in September. He's been elected by referendum to four six-year terms.
But Mubarak appears determined to maintain tight control over the pace of change. And, as Korany puts it, "The government is the president. ... He's really the one that calls the shots."
It's not clear who'll be allowed to challenge Mubarak. A committee of parliament, which is dominated by his National Democratic Party, proposed tough guidelines last week that could exclude most independent candidates who aren't from approved political parties.
In Egypt, political parties must be licensed by the government. The country's oldest and most popular opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, is officially banned. And a Draconian emergency law passed after Islamic militants assassinated Sadat, gives security authorities almost limitless powers in the name of fighting terrorism. Mubarak, in an unprecedented seven-hour TV interview two weeks ago, rejected opposition demands that he repeal the law.
"Politics in Egypt is theater, and a large part of it is farce. There are a lot of extras. And the regime only allows for one star," said Aly Abd el Fatah, a leader of the Brotherhood, which wants a greater role for Islam in Egypt's government and society.
Those close to Mubarak say he's determined to leave a legacy of political reform.
"Business as usual will not work" because Egypt and the world have changed, said Mohamed Kamal, a member of the National Democratic Party's reformist wing led by Mubarak's son Gamal. "I think the president is convinced of that. But he's also convinced that unplanned change might lead to instability. He's very concerned about that."
Government opponents have long suspected that Mubarak is grooming Gamal to replace him. The son has denied such ambition, and the speculation has faded in favor of another power behind the throne, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
Egyptians are proud of their country's thousands of years of civilization and its leadership role in the Arab world. Without prompting, they quote Bush's call on Egypt to guide others in adopting democracy.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said in an interview with Knight Ridder that Egyptians "take very seriously" Bush's comments on their country's role.
"Without Egypt, you will not have reform in the Middle East," Nazif said.
Yet significant opposition is only now beginning to take shape in Egypt. While increasingly vocal, it so far lacks any real political clout.
"There are no real mechanisms existing for change of power," said Hafez Abu-Seada, the secretary-general of the independent Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
The main challenge to Mubarak, other than the Brotherhood, comes from a polyglot coalition of opposition forces that have banded together under the slogan "Kifayah"—Arabic for "Enough."
The coalition includes Islamists and secular, left-wing politicians, as well as liberals who favor market economics and opponents of globalization. There's no clear overall leader, and one liberal politician who might challenge Mubarak, parliament member Ayman Nour, was arrested in January on disputed forgery charges that might bar him from the presidential race.
The pro-democracy movement has roots different from those often described in Washington.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have portrayed the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Iraq's elections in January as sparks for democracy in the Arab world.
But the anti-Mubarak movement was touched off by angry opposition to the invasion of Iraq, opposition leaders said in interviews. Egyptians, many of whom consider Mubarak a U.S. puppet, were outraged that he couldn't stop the invasion, and they poured into the streets two years ago to protest.
"This is the joke of the time now, that people are inspired by the invasion. ... We want a country like that?" said Wael Khahl, an anti-globalization activist and independent opposition organizer. He referred to the violence that still envelops Iraq and has caused deep unease in Egypt and other countries.
The Kifayah movement has grown in recent months, prompting stirrings of independence from journalists, university professors and others.
Egyptian judges—who hold an honored place in society—last month said they wouldn't certify the presidential election unless they're guaranteed full independence from the executive branch.
"It's—how do you say?—another nail in his coffin," Khahl said.
But the protests remain small, with participants numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands, and, unlike in Lebanon, they haven't captured the popular imagination. Most of Egypt's 70 million people learned long ago to stay out of politics.
Political science professor Korany said most Egyptians want change, but gradually.
"If they think the country will go into chaos, they will stick with Mubarak," he said.
The scenario that he and many other Egyptians fear is that anger, desperation and even violence would follow if the growing expectation for change is stillborn.
If that happens, Korany said, "I worry a little bit."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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