CAIRO -- The Egyptian capital is my first stop on a trip to examine whether this is really the a new day for Arab democracy. If democracy is really bursting out in the Middle East no venue is more important than this one.
Egypt is the largest Arab country, with 70 million people clustered along the Nile. It once led the Arab world. But, as its population has climbed, its political system has remained frozen. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has held power in pharaonic fashion for 25 years.
Pressure from his own elite and from the Bush administration led to a recent constitutional amendment that permits candidates to run against a sitting president. Mubarak supporters praise this as a breakthrough; opposition activists say the amendment is a fraud.
I went to the huge Cairo slum of Imbaba to hear what some of Egypt's many poor people had to say. There, hundreds of thousands of residents crowd into crumbling brick and stucco apartment blocks. Donkey carts jostle with ancient cars and people carrying impossible loads on their backs.
Imbaba exemplifies the growing divide between rich and poor in Egypt. It sits across the Nile from Zamalek -- a leafy island full of posh apartments and elegant villas, where the elite hang out at the famed Zamalek Sporting Club.
In Imbaba, knots of unemployed men while away the day drinking tea at makeshift tables on the street. The men at the tables spit out their political views with surprising frankness, a sign that the atmosphere is more relaxed. They complained about their "monarchy" (a reference to the belief that Mubarak's son Gamal will succeed him). They said they knew little about the platforms of opposition candidates and had little hope for real change.
Then, as I was rising to leave, a large man stepped up behind me and grabbed my notebook out of my hands. He ripped my notes into shreds and stalked away without a word. Fearful, my fellow tea drinkers scattered; none dared challenge the fellow, who was likely a security thug.
Welcome to Cairo, where the government claims it's making unprecedented reforms, but undercuts them with heavyhanded security crackdowns. The comparative openness of political discussion is impressive. But so are the government mistakes that are angering the upper and middle classes as well as the poor.
Consider the case of Ayman Nour, a 40-year-old liberal member of parliament who has declared he will run against Mubarak in September's presidential election. In January, just before he announced his candidacy, Nour was arrested on charges of forging signatures on documents required to register his Ghad party. Nour told me he was punched in the face, blindfolded, beaten all over with sticks, and left to sleep on a concrete floor for 44 days. He pulled up his pant leg and showed me deep black marks that still hadn't healed.
When I asked Information Minister Anas El Fekky why Nour was beaten, he replied, "That's what he said. But there is no proof." Another Egyptian official suggested jokingly that Nour's bruises might be the result of domestic violence.
What's so striking about the Nour case is that, by mistreating him, the government hugely inflated his reputation.
The same kind of heavy governmental hand has helped expand the reach of the Kifaya opposition movement. Kifaya, which means Enough!, had held several smallish demonstrations in downtown Cairo. On May 25, thugs wearing badges of the ruling National Democratic Party beat and mauled female protesters, with the assistance of the police. In an Arab society, these stories generate special shock.
As a result of the May 25 events, Kifaya is now attracting women to demonstrations who never would have considered protesting before. Here's what is so fascinating: The middle and upper classes are losing their fear of security forces, even as those forces make mistakes that galvanize more demonstrators. These protests are still small; the strongest political force in Egypt remains the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
But if the security forces keep making the same kind of mistakes, who knows what will develop? Or what will happen if the poor of Imbaba also lose their fear.
X Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.