Egypt and reform

February 18, 2005

IT MIGHT have been an awkward moment for the secretary of state with the Egyptian foreign minister at her side. But Condoleezza Rice didn't show it, when asked about Cairo's jailing of an Egyptian opposition leader. And she certainly didn't duck the question. Her strong sentiments about Egypt's unacceptable detention of Ayman Noor were appropriate. The diplomat, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, kept his thoughts to himself. What could he say? But Ms. Rice's "very strong concerns" about the fate of Mr. Noor can't be the last words on Cairo's harsh treatment of reformers.

And the Bush administration can't view the matter as settled should Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak release Mr. Noor, as the foreign minister hinted earlier this week. Encouraging democratic reforms isn't about freeing opposition leaders who shouldn't have been jailed in the first place. It's about creating an atmosphere free from fear and recriminations. Attitudes in Cairo will have to change before a democracy movement can flourish there.

The Bush administration, like those before it, has to decide on how far it wants to go to advance the cause of reform in the region. The United States doles out $1.2 billion annually in foreign aid to Egypt (only Israel receives more), and it could use that money to extract a commitment to reforms. But despite his pledge to end tyranny in the world, Mr. Bush can't afford to lean too heavily on either of his two key allies in the Arab world. And he won't, despite Ms. Rice's "concerns." That's because of Egypt's role in helping resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Mr. Mubarak hosted the recent summit in which the two announced a truce. Egypt also has mediated sessions with Palestinian militants and pledged to secure the Gaza border. In Iraq, use of Egyptian air space for American jets has been critical to the U.S. war effort.

If Mr. Bush is true to his vision of a new Middle East, democracy has to take root in Egypt, whose vast history and rich culture account for its role as the heart of the Arab world. But Egypt also is an important center of Islamic learning and is home to the Muslim Brotherhood, a political group responsible for terrorist attacks there. At 76, Mr. Mubarak has lived and governed through deadly times. It is highly unlikely that he on his own will seek political reforms that could threaten his continued rule or that of his preferred successor, his son. Economic reforms are more palatable to this autocrat, and at the very least, the White House must insist on those. Mr. Mubarak has been able to ignore U.S. calls for reform with his activities on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

As the Egyptian president seeks another six-year term in October on a simple yes-no vote (do autocrats win elections any other way?), Washington has to bring more than strong words to the cause of liberty. Words alone won't set democracy free.

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