The Egyptian presidential election last Wednesday was a cynical farce. President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981, was certain to win and his leading opponent, Ayman Nur of the Tomorrow party, was facing trumped-up charges of forgery that may land him in jail by next month. In the middle of election day, Mubarak's National Democratic Party panicked at the low turnout and reverted to its old tricks of stuffing ballot boxes and bussing government workers to vote en masse.
And yet, it was not a complete waste of time.
Ayman Nur said it himself a few days before the end of the 19-day campaign. "It made Egyptians think: 'Why have we accepted this for 24 years?' I believe, whatever the result, we have a large gain for democracy and liberalism." And although official manipulation on voting day was so shameless that he is now demanding a re-run of the entire election, his remark is still correct. In what is by far the biggest country in the Arab world, the notion, if not the substance, of democracy has re-emerged after 53 years..
Democracy is what US President George W. Bush says he wants in the Arab world, but he certainly didn't want Mubarak, America's closest Arab ally, to lose power. He wanted an election that looked free but legitimised Mubarak's rule, and Mubarak has done his loyal best to oblige.
But this is tricky stuff: parliamentary elections are due soon, and Mubarak has promised to lift the emergency laws under which he has ruled since he took power after Anwar Sadat's assassination 24 years ago.
If he can't stop the wrong people from running, things could get entirely out of hand ... Hosni Mubarak is third in a line of military officers who have monopolised power in Egypt since young army officers led by Gamal Abdul Nasser first seized power in 1952, and he doesn't have a single democratic bone in his body.
"Politics" during his reign has consisted of an almost unanimous vote every six years in the parliament, which is completely dominated by ruling party placemen, which re-nominated him as the sole presidential candidate. Then came a referendum in which the common people were invited to express their warm approval of the sole presidential candidate.
Egyptians do not love Mubarak, but over the years they have grown so accustomed to him - they must be over 40 to remember a time when he did not dominate the scene - that they had almost forgotten that there might be an alternative normality. So President Bush's call for democracy in Egypt was like a rock tossed into a stagnant pond: suddenly, there were waves spreading in every direction.
Bush may not have understood that a democratically elected Egyptian government would almost certainly cancel the alliance with the United States and take a more radical stance on regional issues like Iraq and Israel-Palestine, but his advisers certainly did.
American pressure on Egypt to democratise remained largely cosmetic, with no demands to legalise the banned Muslim Brotherhood (which would probably get at least 30 per cent of the votes in a free election), or to give rival candidates equal access to the media.
With the help of some election-day chicanery of the usual sort, Mubarak's people managed to produce a result in which around a quarter of the population voted - not as low as it might have been - and over three-quarters of them voted for Mubarak despite the fact that he faced nine rivals for the presidency. And now, having placated the Americans, we can put this notion of democracy away again for six years. That, at least, is the script that the regime is working from.
But what Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy calls "the theatre of democratisation based on cosmetic reforms" can have unexpected results, for it reminds a mass audience of how democratic politics should really work.
Egyptians have noted that the regime's repressive instincts are now seriously constrained by the need to look democratic, and they can use that to lever some real concessions out of Mubarak in time for the parliamentary elections in November.
Although neither Washington nor Mubarak intended it, Egypt could yet find itself on the road to becoming a real democracy.
* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.