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.