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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a former general, practices politics with martial crudeness, so his latest scheme for thwarting the Bush administration's pro-democracy agenda wasn't hard to discern.
Under pressure from Washington to hold free and fair elections for his formerly rubber-stamp parliament, Mubarak set out this fall to crush his secular and liberal opposition, which has been growing in strength all this year, while allowing the banned Muslim Brotherhood to nominate a limited number of candidates and campaign relatively freely.
The goal was to eliminate all moderate opposition and present the United States with a choice between his continuing rule - and the eventual succession of his son Gamal - and an Islamic fundamentalist movement.
In the first of three rounds of voting last month, the strategy played out beautifully in the Cairo district of Ayman Nour, the liberal democratic runner-up to Mubarak in September's unfree presidential election and the greatest potential threat to his son. The president's party nominated a former state security police officer against Nour; the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate cooperatively withdrew and endorsed Mubarak's man. Some 2,000 government supporters were then illegally registered in the district and, in defiance of a court order, bused in to vote against the local favorite.
Nour was declared the loser, and last week the government resumed his criminal prosecution on trumped-up forgery charges.
Yet as it turned out, Mubarak's plan worked too well. Egypt's democratic opposition was all but eliminated from parliament - but the Muslim Brotherhood trounced the government at the polls.
In the first two rounds, 65 percent of Brotherhood candidates were elected, compared with only 42 percent from Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Because the Islamists, in a tacit deal with the government, limited themselves to contesting fewer than one-third of the districts, Mubarak still holds a majority of the decided seats.
But the Brotherhood's proportional victory nevertheless triggered panic in the state security apparatus. In the most recent three days of voting, security forces indulged in an orgy of fraud and thuggery to prevent more losses - in full view of Egyptian and international observers, Western journalists and Arab satellite channels. More than 1,300 Brotherhood activists were arrested and at least three persons killed, in one case when security forces opened fire on people trying to vote.
THOUGH THE last runoff elections are set for today, the results of this most squalid process are already in: The Muslim Brotherhood will hold at least 76, and as many as 100, seats in the Egyptian parliament, out of 454. Other opposition groups will be reduced to a couple of dozen. But the price has been to enrage much of the Egyptian political and business elite, and even the usually docile official press, which has begun denouncing the government's cynical tactics and subsequent brutishness.
"The parliamentary elections have been tainted with flagrant fraud and unprecedented violence," said a statement issued by 44 prominent intellectuals and writers and posted on the Internet site of Egypt's leading newspaper, Al Ahram. "The fraud may lead to a collapse in the legitimacy of the state and the current regime, in light of the fact that political reform was a major element in the justification for a fifth term for the president."
Mubarak's 24-year-old autocracy probably won't collapse anytime soon, but it has lost the support of most of the moderate Egyptians who hoped it would carry out a gradual political liberalization. That should force some hard decisions by the Bush administration, which has also banked on a regime-led reform; its characterization of the elections last week as "an important step on Egypt's path toward democratic reform" was ludicrous, and indefensible.
WHAT TO do? First, President Bush should refuse to be spooked by Mubarak's would-be boogeyman. Though the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed fundamentalist, it renounced violence decades ago and has joined with secular opposition groups in calling for a genuine parliamentary democracy in Egypt. "(W)e are serious about pushing forward the process of reform, actualizing democratic transformation and building a development renaissance on all fronts," said an essay published in Al Ahram last week by a senior Brotherhood figure, Essam Erian. That's an agenda the administration should be able to endorse - and promote as an example for other Islamic movements in the Middle East.
Second, the administration should make clear, starting now, that it won't tolerate a future undemocratic transfer of power from Mubarak to his son, or anyone else. The 77-year-old president is just beginning a new, six-year term; the US should explicitly link the continuation of the billions of dollars in official aid that prop up his regime to steps toward the democratic election of his successor.
If Egyptian political life is freed, there will be plenty of good candidates by 2011; like Ayman Nour, they just won't be members of Mubarak's parliament.
The writer is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff.