Leading article: A dubious exercise in democracy

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The Independent Online

This has led some to suggest that Egypt is the latest Middle Eastern nation to feel the effects of a "democratic revolution", set in train by the US invasion of Iraq. But such claims must be treated with a high degree of scepticism. The authoritarian apparatus of the Egyptian state is still very much in place. And this is certain to have a profound effect on the outcome of this poll. Egypt's new election law requires aspiring presidential candidates to secure endorsements from recognised bodies such as the People's Assembly. But these are stuffed with representatives from Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Unwanted independents have been effectively excluded from mounting a challenge. And, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, remains banned from taking part.

This election will be contested, but will it be fair? The Egyptian election commission has refused to allow international election observers to monitor polling stations. The task of safeguarding the integrity of the poll will fall to Egypt's judiciary. The judges have warned that they will not be afraid to speak out if there is government interference in the poll - but this remains a poor substitute for outside observation.

Few Egyptians are under any illusions about why President Mubarak has decided to hold these elections. The United States, embarrassed by their long-standing ally's lack of democratic legitimacy, demanded reform in return for the military and financial aid received by Egypt. President Mubarak has complied, but is determined to ensure that there can be only one outcome. Depressingly, the signs are that he will be successful.

The modern history of Egypt shows the dangers of political repression and the restriction of free speech. The country has become a pressure cooker of frustration and resentment. It should be noted that the al-Qa'ida mastermind, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian. And the recent bombing of Sharm el-Sheikh shows that extremism simmers below the surface of this society. For the sake of all Egyptians, it is to be hoped that these elections - flawed as they are likely to be - presage real democratic change.