U.S. silence on Egypt betrays democracy activists

June 15, 2006|By JEFFREY AZARVA

WASHINGTON -- The party headquarters of former Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour burned down in a suspicious fire this month. Mr. Nour is serving a five-year prison term, his appeals against spurious fraud charges exhausted.

What a difference a year makes.

Just a year ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the American University in Cairo and proclaimed that a "hopeful future is within reach of every Egyptian citizen. ... You are not alone. All free nations are your allies." The democratic winds appeared to sweep Cairo when President Hosni Mubarak acquiesced to multicandidate presidential elections for the first time in the Arab republic's history.

But just nine months after Mr. Mubarak won his fourth term, he ended the Egyptian government's experiment with democracy. When he arrested Mr. Nour, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Francis J. Ricciardone, declined to comment. Mr. Mubarak saw a green light to accelerate his crackdown.

On April 30, the Egyptian government extended the country's emergency laws for two more years. Under such laws, the government can censor media, ban public demonstrations and detain political dissidents indefinitely. Most political activists had hoped that Mr. Mubarak, under pressure from Washington, would annul them. But the White House remained silent.

Determining U.S. rhetoric to be hollow, Mr. Mubarak pushed further. On May 18, thousands of police clamped down on demonstrators expressing solidarity for two pro-reform judges, Hesham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki, who sit on Egypt's highest appellate court. The government harassed the judges after they questioned government vote rigging during September's presidential election. Security forces have rounded up scores of other pro-democracy activists.

Still, democracy activists continued their vigils. President Bush's words at his second inauguration seem to have resonance in the Arab world: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors." But excuse the oppressors is exactly what the White House did.

On May 25, Egyptian police detained Muhammad al-Sharqawi, who at a vigil for Judge Bastawisi and Judge Mekki held up a sign that read, "I want my rights." At the police station, they beat him and sodomized him. Thrown in prison with cracked ribs and urinating blood, they denied him medical care. Mr. al-Sharqawi's lawyer described his case as the worst act of sadism in Egypt since 1995, when the government cracked down on Islamists. The situation elicits barely a yawn from Foggy Bottom.

Mr. Mubarak's strategy is clear: Deprive Egypt's fledgling liberal opposition of any political space, all the while telling Washington that he is the only bulwark against militant Islam and a terrorist resurgence. The White House bought the gambit. But the administration need not sacrifice democracy for the war on terrorism. Mr. Mubarak's survival depends on continuing the fight against terror.

Each year, the Egyptian government pockets $1.8 billion in U.S. aid. Mr. Mubarak treats such funds as entitlement. Yet the State Department is afraid to play hardball. C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testified to the House Appropriations Committee that cutting aid "would be damaging to our national interests."

Yet Mr. Bush's 2002 decision to hold up $134 million in aid until Mr. Mubarak released democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim did not damage U.S. national interests; it augmented them. Not only did the White House win Mr. Ibrahim's release, but it also bolstered U.S. prestige.

Today, U.S. prestige is in free fall.

When Mr. Bush, in his 2005 State of the Union address, implored Egypt "to show the way toward democracy," brave individuals across the region took the president at his word. Arab liberals who heeded Mr. Bush's call feel betrayal. Dictators are emboldened. Democratic allies are already in short supply; alienating them with shortsighted policies will only diminish their ranks.

Now, when U.S. assistance is needed most, our silence is deafening.

Jeffrey Azarva is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. His e-mail is jazarva@aei.org.

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