PHILADELPHIA -- The disconnect between President Bush's public push for Mideast democracy and developments in the region was in full view last week in Washington and Cairo.
Last Friday, Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egypt's president and thus his presumed heir, was welcomed by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at the White House. The younger Mr. Mubarak is supposedly spearheading democratic reforms within his father's political party.
But the day before Mr. Mubarak's White House confab, police in Cairo beat demonstrators protesting the punishment of two reform-minded Egyptian judges. The judges' crime: They went public with allegations of massive fraud in Egyptian elections last year.
A State Department spokesman tepidly condemned the beatings. The White House seems spooked by Mideast elections having led to strong showings by Islamists - in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and even in Iraq. In Egyptian elections, candidates linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood took a sizable bloc of votes.
So Mr. Bush now seems willing to look the other way when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak postpones local elections and renews emergency laws. But the repression of the Egyptian judges goes to the heart of the question that haunts the whole Middle East: Is it possible to introduce democratic government in the Arab world?
Egypt's 7,000 judges hold a special place in the struggle to democratize their system. They are pillars of the establishment who want to see a reformed Egypt governed by rule of law and democratic institutions - not by clerics. The Judges Club in Cairo has remained a haven for democratic debate during years of dictatorial rule. The judges are required by the Egyptian constitution to monitor elections.
But a year ago this week, thousands of judges flooded into Cairo to protest the Mubarak regime's interference with judicial independence and its efforts to prevent them from monitoring elections freely. The regime refused to listen and restricted the judges further. Now, two of the country's most senior judges are in the dock for accusing the government of electoral fraud.
A year ago, I had the good fortune of interviewing one of the accused judges, Hisham Bastawisi, in Cairo. This erudite man with gray hair and spectacles knew the risk he was taking in going public. But he said he could no longer accept the way the government was abusing the judges.
Judge Bastawisi scoffs at the idea that religious radicals would win free elections in his country, saying extremism does not have roots in heavily rural and traditional Egypt. But he adds that popular anger with the regime is rising. He makes another crucial point about the threat of theocracy: In Iran, the ayatollahs won because there was no foundation of democratic institutions.
"So what we want is [to build] a foundation, based on the constitution," he says. "If we had an independent judiciary and fair elections, everything would change. We are peacefully trying to change the institutions in our country."
Why is the Mubarak regime repressing judges who seek peaceful change and using violence against those who support this path?
And why are journalists who cover the protests being beaten? Last week, a courageous young woman named Abir al-Askari was slapped, punched and threatened by police as she covered the demonstration by the judges' supporters. Ms. Al-Askari, who writes for the weekly Al-Dustour, was attacked and sexually molested last year by regime goons who also threatened her family. She has kept on reporting, but who knows what might happen to her next?
By repressing those who want to build a country based on parliamentary law, the Mubarak regime leaves the country only two choices: authoritarianism or theocratic rule. He guarantees that democratic reforms will go nowhere.
If the Bush team is serious about promoting democracy in the Middle East, it cannot let the repression of Egyptian judges and journalists pass unnoticed. Why not invite Judge Bastawisi to the White House as a symbol of those who fight to build a system based on rule of law?
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.