And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East. -- President Bush, the State of the Union address, 2005
Strong words alone will not dislodge an entrenched dictator like Hosni Mubarak. Obviously we're not going to send the 3rd Infantry Division to achieve regime change in Cairo. How, then, is Bush going to back up his demand for democracy? Here's a modest proposal: Reduce or eliminate altogether the $2-billion annual U.S. subsidy to Egypt unless there's real economic and political progress.
Since 1975, Washington has provided Cairo more than $50 billion in military and economic aid. Initially this largess had two justifications: first, to keep Egypt out of Soviet clutches; second, to reward it for concluding a peace treaty with Israel. The first rationale no longer applies. And the second? Egypt has lived in peace with Israel, but so for the most part has Syria -- and it hasn't gotten a cent from U.S. taxpayers. Arab states coexist with Israel because they have failed to destroy it, not because they've been bribed.
More recently, a fresh rationale has been offered for propping up the decrepit dictatorship in Cairo: the need to buy cooperation in the war on terrorism. It's true that Egypt has been a close ally in fighting Al Qaeda and its ilk, but so have lots of other countries that receive little or no U.S. financial aid. Mubarak fights the Islamists not as a favor to us but because they pose a mortal threat to his rule.
Mubarak has been an expensive but hardly a model ally during his 24-year reign. His most recent outrage was the arrest on Jan. 29 of Ayman Nour, head of the liberal Ghad party, on trumped-up charges of forging signatures on a petition. Mubarak's economic ineptitude is also a given. The Egyptian economy, with its high unemployment rate and low growth rate, recalls the glory days of the Warsaw Pact. Notwithstanding recent reforms, no serious liberalization is likely as long as U.S. subsidies prop up the status quo.
What's really disturbing about Mubarak is that he tries to deflect the anger of his impoverished and oppressed populace toward convenient scapegoats, Israel and the United States. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, Egypt's state-run news media routinely glorify anti-Israeli suicide bombers, deny that the Holocaust occurred and compare the U.S. and Israel to Nazi Germany -- unfavorably. In 2002, Egyptian state television aired a 41-part series based on "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a notorious century-old anti-Semitic forgery.
The Egyptian media also love more-modern conspiracy theories. They accuse the U.S. of dropping poisoned food packets in Afghanistan and spreading AIDS in Africa. Almost every terrorist outrage, including 9/11, is blamed on Americans or Israelis. Ibrahim Nafi, editor of the government newspaper Al-Ahram, wrote last year: "The West, and specifically those that are at the helm of their empire of evil, are the real terrorists.... The West is currently engaged in a war of annihilation against Muslims...."
Given the poisonous climate of opinion fostered by the Mubarak mafia, it is little wonder that the leader of the 9/11 hijackers was Egyptian or that Osama bin Laden's deputy is Egyptian. Egypt has long been a breeding ground of Islamist extremism. Mubarak uses this to his advantage by telling the West that if he falls, the fundamentalists will take over. To forestall this catastrophe, the 76-year-old generously proposes to "run" for a fifth term this fall as the only candidate on the ballot. But there is little evidence that Islamists are popular enough to win a free election in Egypt. They have flourished mainly because little mainstream opposition is allowed. The U.S. government should be funding the opposition, not the apparatus that represses it.
We've seen in the past that threatening to cut off subsidies has helped modify Egyptian behavior. Dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim credits U.S. pressure with helping to win his release from prison in 2003. And that involved a threat to withhold merely $130 million in supplemental aid. What might a threat to cut off $2 billion accomplish?