A LOT of criticism has been heaped since Sept. 11 on the royal family that rules Saudi Arabia. No one should be surprised by that - least of all the ailing King Fahd and his family of obscenely wealthy princes. The Saudis are protected by America - which drives Osama bin Laden nuts - but they aren't enthusiastic about giving up much in return.
Not much attention has been paid to President Hosni Mubarak, the ruler of Egypt, the other country that produced terrorists who acted against America on Sept. 11, including the apparent coordinator of the attacks, Mohamed Atta.
Atta was not a product of the fetid slums of Cairo that have been a spawning ground for militant Islamic fundamentalists. He came from an upper-middle class family. But he was a product of the growing popular disgust with the Mubarak regime.
A chief focus of that disgust is Egypt's nominal peace with Israel, and another is the relationship with the United States which delivers about $2 billion a year to Egypt for making that peace with Israel. Two billion dollars is not a lot of money in this country, but in Egypt it's more than 10 percent of the government's annual revenue.
So, here are these two Arab countries, two of our most important "friends" in the region. One, Saudi Arabia, depends on the United States for protection so it can continue to make billions upon billions of dollars from oil exports. The other, Egypt, depends on the $2 billion a year it gets in aid.
What have they done for us lately? Not enough. What could they have done to prevent Sept. 11? Quite a lot.
Both regimes are repressive. The Saudi royals tolerate no opposition - whether from militant fundamentalists who believe they have desecrated their post as the guardians of sacred Mecca and Medina, or from democratically inclined dissidents who want the political system opened up. Mubarak ruthlessly clamps down on real and perceived opposition. His regime is indiscriminate in this respect. Islamic fundamentalists? Throw them in jail. Homosexuals? Throw them in jail. Liberal academics? Jail for them, too.
The unhappy saga of Saad Eddin Ibrahim is prominent in this repression. Ibrahim, one of Egypt's most prominent intellectuals, was dragged out of his home in a Cairo suburb last year and put on trial in a "state security court" where he was caged with more than two dozen co-defendants. In May, Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years at hard labor for defaming Egypt.
What had Ibrahim done? He ran a democracy think tank in Cairo that came up with some conclusions Mubarak's government didn't like. One of these was that Coptic Christians were being discriminated against, which Egypt emphatically denies. (Dangerous to be seen as discriminating against Christians when you're depending on $2 billion a year from the U. S. government.) The other was that his organization, the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Social Development Studies, had found irregularities in Egypt's elections.
In a way, nothing is irregular about Mubarak's elections. He is in his fourth six-year term, always having been supported by more than a 90 percent majority after being nominated by parliament, which he controls. This puts him in a league with other great Arab democrats who never got less than 90 percent of the vote: Bashar Assad and his late father Hafez of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Elections in Iran are more honest than in Egypt.
So, Saad Eddin Ibrahim - 62, holder of U. S. citizenship, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Washington in Seattle, former teacher at UCLA, long-tenured teacher at the American University of Cairo, highly respected observer of politics of his country and the region - was sentenced to seven years at hard labor because he called an Egyptian election fraudulent.
What did the Bush administration have to say? "We are deeply troubled by the outcome, and we have some concerns about the process that resulted in this sentence," a State Department official told The New York Times.
Deeply troubled? They should have called Mubarak and told him to let Ibrahim go. Because he was convicted in a state security court, the president of Egypt may be the only one who can let him go.
If America and other powerful states engaged with Saudi Arabia and Egypt had brought pressure on these "friends" to open up, they might not be as hated as they are.
Apologists for the Saudis say opening up would bring down the wrath of the Sunni fanatic Wahabists. Well, one of the most dangerous of those is already gunning for them, and he hit America on Sept. 11. If Sh'ite fanatics in Iran can let their people go to the polls, why can't Sunni fanatics?
As for America's friend Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the results of an honest election in Egypt would be so fascinating that practically anything would be worth the risk - for everyone but Mubarak himself.
Late last month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell reflected on such issues before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a message our friends ought to heed.
"But when you don't have a free democratic system, where the street is represented in the halls of the legislature and in the executive branches of those governments, then they have to be more concerned about the passions in the street," Powell said. "And I have started to raise these issues and talk to some of our friends in the region and say ... in addition to sort of criticizing us from time to time and terrible editorials about us in your newspapers, better start taking a look in the mirror."
For America's sake, if not for theirs, let's hope "our friends" are taking Powell's advice.