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Opening Up Egypt

June 03, 2005

Egypt's security forces have busied themselves in recent weeks stamping out the country's tiny flames of political reform. That made President Bush's public message Wednesday on the need for meaningful presidential elections there all the more important.

It's too much to expect the balloting in September to be "free and fair," as Bush said he hoped. But less rigging than usual would be progress.

Last week, opponents of President Hosni Mubarak's regime demonstrated in Cairo during a national referendum on whether Egypt should hold the country's first supposedly competitive presidential election. Pro-regime goons, sometimes joined by uniformed police, kicked and punched the demonstrators and journalists.

Bush quickly said the sickening spectacle was "not our view of how democracy ought to work." That was a refreshing contrast with Laura Bush's statement three days earlier during her visit to Cairo, when she said Mubarak's plan for elections was "a very bold step." Laura Bush's praise disheartened opposition figures, already justifiably upset by high hurdles their organizations must clear to field a candidate.

The major opposition force is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned but has put several members in parliament. The Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago, but an offshoot, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, assassinated Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981. Last month, Mubarak's security forces launched one of their toughest crackdowns on the group.

Bush said he spoke to Mubarak by telephone for about 10 minutes Wednesday and discussed the election and the violence during the referendum, which ended with approval of elections designed to give the appearance of a real choice (before, voters could only say yes or no to a single candidate).

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief told The Times last month that it's up to Cairo to determine the pace of reforms. Fair enough, but the country that receives $2 billion a year in U.S. aid should be willing to listen to suggestions on how to open its politics to all peaceful participants and end decades of emergency rule and repression.

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