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Nibbles of democracy on the Nile

In the four years since Sept. 11, President Bush's goal of suppressing terrorism by pushing democracy in the Middle East has had few triumphs. Last week, the largest Arab nation, Egypt, held its first multiparty presidential election, a very limited one, on its leader's own terms. Guess what? Three of four Egyptians didn't vote.

Those who did vote were either corralled or coerced to vote for President Hosni Mubarak, who "won" with 88.6 percent of the ballot.

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After 24 years in power, Mr. Mubarak's latter-day attempt to inject a small bit of competition into government didn't exactly result in a mandate for his rule. Egyptians voted with their feet by not walking to the polls. Even with Mubarak opponents on the ballot, many knew the system was still rigged.

If the Mubarak regime is really trying to jump-start an Egyptian-style democracy, voter turnout last Wednesday signaled it is so far failing. Much more needs to be done, and quickly, to create the elements of democracy: full civil liberties, equal enforcement of justice, freedom of assembly, media access for the political opposition, no harassment of voters, etc. Such measures, at root, are a sign that a leader really respects the governed rather than simply looks for respect.

President Bush congratulated Mubarak for holding this election, while also asking that the "flaws" so evident in it be corrected in time for November's parliamentary election. Mr. Bush's advice comes with some heft: Egypt receives billions in aid from the United States.

Outside pressure to democratize, of course, can easily backfire on the US. In Iraq, the urgency to democratize the region post-Sept. 11 led to the war, and then a heavy American hand in setting up an interim government, an election for a new interim government, and finally the writing of a constitution that goes to voters next month. Making such a top-down process look homegrown, while still pushing it along, is also Bush's awkward task in Egypt, the biggest prize of the effort to create democracy in Islamic nations (he has partially succeeded in Afghanistan after the war there).

Is Bush counting on this election to create a growing public demand for more democracy? To be sure, Mubarak made enough promises during the campaign which, if they aren't fulfilled, might result in him (or his politically groomed son) being held more accountable at the next election. One of his promises is to give more power to parliament which, if the coming election has fewer flaws than last week's, might better express the people's frustrations with a slow economy and the high level of corruption.

Any regime that has long practiced political survival more than any other goal usually can't be counted on to make reforms that might oust it. Yet enough examples exist around the world of long-ruling parties brought down by a toehold of true democracy. Egypt's National Democratic Party might become one of them.

Despite a flawed election, a voter taste of vigorous campaigns can develop a desire to be better ruled and to hold a leader accountable. Bush may be long gone from office before Mubarak's pharaoh-like presidency makes way for democracy.

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Change in Egypt, like the Nile, is slow-moving. Once tasted, however, democracy isn't easily forgotten.