CAIRO, Egypt Nov 27, 2005 — For months, the Bush administration has said it is serious about pushing for democracy in the Middle East. It's about to get a serious test of that resolve.
Egypt, the world's most populous Arab country, is suddenly roiling with a wide-open, combative election that seems certain to end with the country's main Islamic group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, as a big winner.
The country's rulers, longtime American allies, are starting to show signs of panic: Police have barred voters from polls and shot tear gas and thugs have attacked Brotherhood supporters in recent days in an apparent effort to blunt the group's growing momentum.
Even before the final round of voting Thursday, Brotherhood loyalists who run as independents have increased their seats in parliament fivefold. That's not enough to unseat the ruling party, but is still seen as a harsh slap to President Hosni Mubarak.
In some ways, despite the violence, it's going as well as President Bush could hope. A scant nine months after Mubarak took the first steps toward reform under U.S. pressure, it is indisputably clear that Egyptians hanker for choice and change, the very roots of democracy.
Yet, two things about the elections could prove deeply worrisome for the West:
One is the Brotherhood itself, and what it might do now that it has gained enough power to influence government policy in a secular system it opposes.
The second is the turmoil Egypt likely would face during any transition, as the aging Mubarak and his long-ruling elite struggle to decide whether to give up power, and if so, how much and how fast.
That second issue hits close to home for American interests.
While Bush says it was hypocritical for the U.S. to forgo pressing democratic reform on authoritarian regimes like those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in return for support on other issues, Washington still needs a few Arab allies at a time al-Qaida loyalists are active, Iran is increasingly combative toward Israel, and Iraq continues to be bloody.