Here is Egypt's modern history in a nut shell: In the 1950s and ‘60s, the nation was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, a socialist revolutionary who intended to unite the Arabic-speaking world. He failed.
After Nasser's death in 1970, Anwar el-Sadat took over. He broke Egypt's longstanding alliance with the Soviet Union, turning instead to the United States for support and aid. In 1981, radical Islamists assassinated him.
Since then, for nearly a quarter century, Hosni Mubarak has been firmly in charge. Unlike his predecessors, he promised stability, not change. Yet change – historical change -- could be the legacy he leaves.
That change was meant to begin this week with a nationwide referendum authorizing multi-party presidential elections for the first time in Egypt's history. But some opposition groups have angrily rejected the referendum, saying it doesn't go far enough.
While it will allow candidates from established political parties to compete next September, it does not authorize candidates from such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood -- which was implicated in President Sadat's murder. On Wednesday, anti-referendum demonstrations in Cairo turned violent. Most news reports blamed pro-government groups for attacking protestors.
A week earlier, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had been in Washington, making the case to President Bush and others for Mr. Mubarak's reforms. Those who believe that President Murabak wants merely to hold on to power as long as possible are wrong, he said. Those who charge that Mr. Mubarak is only going through the motions of reform under pressure from President Bush also are mistaken, he added.
“A few years ago, Egypt had a single-party system,” Mr. Nazif told me. “Then we moved to a dominant-party system. And now we are making the transition to a multi-party system.” In other words: Democracy is on the way.
He acknowledged, however, that the opposition to Mr. Mubarak is splintered and will not easily unite around a single candidate by summer's end. As for the Muslim Brotherhood that, he said, is an organization that seeks power but is not sincerely committed to developing democratic processes and institutions.
On her recent visit to Cairo, First Lady Laura Bush, praised Mr. Mubarak's reforms as both a “very bold step” and “a small step.” Paradoxically, that may have it quite right.
While Mr. Mubarak's commitment to liberalization and democratization is brand new, it does open a door that had been kept firmly shut throughout Egypt's modern history. Still, his government continues to send mixed signals. A few months ago, a key opposition figure, Ayman Nour, was jailed. He has since been released but now faces trial on forgery charges. He says he's been framed. The government says the evidence will speak for itself.
Mr. Mubarak's most prominent opponent may be the human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim who has announced plans to run for president himself. Writing in the Qatari newspaper Al-Raya (as translated by MEMRI), Mr. Ibrahim praised the 77-year-old Mr. Mubarak – and called on him to voluntarily end his political career.
It should be enough for Mr. Mubarak, he said, “that he is the longest-ruling President of the Republic in the history of [modern] Egypt, and that he is the ruler [whose reign was] the third-longest in Egypt in the last 5,000 years after Ramses II and Muhammad Ali.
“Out of pity for him, for his health, for his history, and for his family, as well as out of pity for us and for Egypt, [we call upon him:] ‘Do not present your candidacy [again], oh honorable President'…”
But Mr. Mubarak almost certainly will run in elections that he and Mr. Nazif promise will be the most free and fair Egypt's has ever had. Egypt's judges – a group that has been vocally asserting its independence – plan to supervise. International observers could play a useful role too -- if Mr. Mubarak agrees to invite them in.
Democracy is now coming to the Middle East, Mr. Nazif predicted. He credited President Bush for creating “a trend, a new environment,” but added that most people in the region really do want leaders of their own choosing, freedom of speech and worship, the rule of law, and the prosperity that those conditions can generate.
Should Mr. Mubarak help usher in such changes, history will count him as the most consequential leader in the modern history of Egypt.