Denial in Egypt

The biggest obstacle to Bush's vision of the Middle East may be his ally Hosni Mubarak.

On Monday, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush thanked his "friend," Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak for support for U.S.'s efforts to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East. But U.S. support for Mubarak's undemocratic regime counters those very goals.

The Washington Post editorialized that "the largest obstacle" to Bush's vision of the Middle East "may be Hosni Mubarak." Egypt is a key player in securing a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that, critics say, shouldn't blind Bush to the need for the U.S. to push Egypt toward political and economic reform.

Israel's anticipated pullout from the Gaza Strip was welcomed by both Bush and Mubarak, who emphasized that the step must be a part of -- not a replacement for -- the "road map" to Middle East peace which envisions the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005. As Mubarak said, "...the withdrawal from Gaza, if it is apart from the road map, I think it will be very highly appreciated."

Mubarak expressed his "reservations" about U.S. actions in Iraq and urged for a greater role for the U.N, but these were mild words considering the deep unpopularity in Egypt of the U.S. and its Iraq war. A 2003 University of Maryland poll, for example, found that only 6 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of the U.S. The same percentage thought the Iraqi War would result in a more peaceful Middle East. Indeed, last year, Mubarak cancelled his annual trip to the United States to express his disapproval of the war.

In spite of Bush's talk about how Egypt will spearhead democratic reform and pave the way for the democratization of the region, it's clear that Bush would be hearing much stronger criticism of U.S. foreign policy if Egypt was in fact a democracy. Joe Stork, the acting executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch notes:

"If reform means anything, it means ending nearly fifty years of emergency rule and addressing the country's torture epidemic. … President Bush has raised expectations with his call for democracy and more open societies in the Middle East. The biggest test of whether he means it is his willingness to press Egypt on basic rights issues."

So far, Bush has proved far from willing.

Egypt is one of the most important U.S. allies in the Middle East and this year, as in the past, it will receive almost $2 billion dollars in U.S. aid -- second only to U.S. aid to Israel (though both countries will be eclipsed by Iraq in 2004). Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries to have signed peace treaties with Israel.

Just as Mubarak's emergency rule testifies to Egypt's absence of democratization, the country's 25 percent unemployment is a pretty good gauge of its progress on economic reforms. Several of the 9/11 hijackers were Egyptian and Al-Qaeda's world-view finds much more resonance in Egypt than Bush would like to admit.

In Mubarak's eyes, the events of 9/11 illustrate the power of his political opponents and prove that the government is right to pursue them as it sees fit. But the criticisms of the Egyptian government goes far beyond its torture and persecution of the Islamists. The conservative National Review cites the jailing of the human rights activist and sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the mistreatment of the country's Coptic Christian minority, and Mubarak's unwillingness to meet with the opposition parties. Mubarak is intolerant of all opposition -- no matter their political convictions. Perhaps most importantly, as the National Review points out, Mubarak's refusal to open the political system has only served to popularize extremist Islamist parties.

"When America pushes for changes, Mubarak responds that reforms must respect each country's particular cultural and religious characteristics to avoid "instability or the overtaking of the reform process by extremists." This anodyne statement seems to mean "push us too hard, and you'll end up dealing with our replacement, the Muslim Brotherhood," which originated in Egypt and is the promoter and ideological guide of Islamic extremists throughout the world.

The danger of the Brotherhood or its surrogates coming to power, pushing further repression at home and reaction abroad, is real. Though nominally illegal, it has built an extensive network throughout Egypt (and the rest of the Arab world), especially in educational and professional associations. It may be the most popular organization in the country. But, while the danger is real, it is Egypt's own policies that have made it so, since every other alternative has had the life squeezed out of it."

Egypt is heavily dependent on U.S. aid, and Bush's talk of the need for the Arab world to embrace democracy makes him more open to the criticism that if the U.S. was serious about this goal, it would start with Egypt -- in particular, by tying aid to democratic and economic reforms that Mubarak has resisted. As a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker says in an interview to the Christian Science Monitor:

"Aid offers an easy way out for Egypt to avoid reform. They use the money to support antiquated programs and to resist reforms…Egypt remains as anti-investment as it has ever been because we have never made our aid program conditional."

The Washington Post used Bush's own words to point to the contradictions in the U.S. aim of democratizing the Middle East while propping up autocratic regimes:

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," Mr. Bush said in November. Egypt has been at the center of that flawed policy. Since it signed a peace accord with Israel in 1979, the United States has showered the regime with some $50 billion in aid while asking for little outside a cooperative foreign policy."

As Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with Bush to talk about plans for the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Mubarak's offer of support exemplifies just the sort of "cooperative foreign policy" the United States has relied upon. Mubarak has said that Egypt will train the Palestinian police and work to prevent weapons smuggling from Egypt to Gaza, which Egypt controlled before the 1967 War.

Bush is right to stress that Egypt will be critical in brokering a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in determining the pace of democratization in the Middle East. With more than 74 million people, Egypt is the Middle East's most populous state. It has successfully maintained peace with Israel for quarter of the century and will border the future Palestinian state. But the poverty and the political repression that have been the hallmarks of Mubarak's regime only find outlet in support for the very forces that reject a peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the introduction of secular democracy in the Middle East. The very least that U.S. can do to promote the achievement of these two goals is to tie the billions of dollars in aid that Egypt receives to its progress on political and economic liberalization.