If you want to chart the downsizing of President Bush’s democracy-promotion agenda, look at the difference in his handling of Egypt between his first and second terms.
Back in 2002, when Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leading liberal dissident, was rotting in an Egyptian prison, the White House reacted with outrage. After the U.S. threatened to withhold $130 million in aid, Ibrahim was freed by an Egyptian court.
This year, “president-for-life” Hosni Mubarak has imprisoned another liberal dissident, Ayman Nour, who had the temerity to challenge Mubarak in last year’s semi-free presidential election. Many other pro-democracy demonstrators also have been locked up or roughed up.
The State Department has reacted with ritual expressions of “concern” and “deep disappointment.” But actions speak louder than words, and even as Mubarak’s goons have been bashing heads in Cairo, his son, Gamal, was in May granted a coveted White House meeting with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials. This was quite an honor for someone who occupies no government post—but who is widely considered to be his father's handpicked successor.
Even worse, the administration has blocked any attempt to tie U.S. aid to improvements in Egypt’s dismal human rights record. When Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) tried earlier this year to withhold $200 million of Egypt's $1.8-billion aid package, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch went to Capitol Hill to lobby against the measure. “Our strategic partnership with Egypt is in many ways a cornerstone of our foreign policy in the Middle East,” Welch asserted. “The United States and Egypt share a common vision of a Middle East that is at peace and free of the scourge of terror.”
This sort of claptrap has been emanating from Foggy Bottom Arabists for decades. Bush seemingly repudiated this policy of uncritical support in a 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in which he called on Egypt to “show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.” After making a few genuflections in that direction, Mubarak is now back to his wicked old ways. And yet he suffers no consequences—none!—for defying the wishes of the United States and, more important, of his own people.
No doubt State Department realpolitikers have convinced themselves that it’s better not to rock the boat. After all, Mubarak delivers “stability,” and he might be succeeded by an anti-American regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus we fall once again into Mubarak’s trap. He extends greater tolerance to Islamist extremists than to liberal critics such as Nour and Ibrahim because the radicals are a handy cudgel with which he can beat back Western demands for democracy.
The case for supporting Mubarak would be stronger if he actually were the wholehearted friend of the United States and Israel that the State Department makes him out to be. It’s true that Mubarak abides by the Camp David accords (what choice does he have?), allows U.S. warships to transit the Suez Canal (a profitable business) and cooperates in our war against Islamist terrorists (entirely in his own interest). But all the while his government sponsors mosques and media outlets that spew venomous anti-American, anti-Semitic and pro-jihad propaganda.
The Middle East Media Research Institute posted a translation of a recent tirade delivered on a children’s program on state-run TV by an imam employed by the Egyptian government. Sheik Muhammad Nassar told the kiddies an uplifting tale of a teenager from the Middle Ages who became a “martyr” while waging jihad against the infidels. “This, my friends, is a beautiful story,” he proclaimed.
No wonder the U.S. military reports that the largest number of foreign fighters captured in Iraq are Egyptians. With its stagnation at home and ubiquitous calls for jihad abroad, the land of the pharaohs has become a perfect breeding ground for suicide bombers.
A self-described “pro-U.S., secular, libertarian, disgruntled” Egyptian who blogs at sandmonkey.org suggests that the proper Western response to this intolerable state of affairs is “to boycott Egypt financially...until this government stops silencing dissent.”
The U.S. could start by trimming or eliminating its $1.8-billion annual subsidy of Mubarak, which represents 10% of his government revenues, and redirecting the money to promotion of civil society in the Middle East. That’s the kind of bold move that Bush—the visionary leader who once proclaimed that his “ultimate goal” was “ending tyranny in our world”—might have made. If only he were still in office.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.