In a surprise announcement Saturday, Egypt’s long-ruling president, Hosni Mubarak, ordered constitutional changes that would open the door for the first-ever multiparty presidential elections in the world’s most populous Arab country. The move is the latest indication of a cautious democratic shift under way in the Arab world.
Since the beginning of the year, the region has seen national elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, landmark municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and unprecedented mass demonstrations in Lebanon calling for an end to Syrian tutelage.
The question remains whether these developments are truly the initial flourishings of a nascent democratic transformation or merely halfhearted measures by autocratic regimes which have no intention of promoting genuine change. What happens next is key, observers say.
“I will be encouraged only when I see a real grass-roots movement emerging,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian social analyst. “What I see happening in Lebanon is encouraging. In Egypt, I can see signs because there are a number of people who have pushed Mubarak into opening up the elections. On the other hand, in Syria unfortunately, it’s a very disappointing state of affairs and we seem to be heading in the wrong direction.”