Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Members of Egypt's Democratic Opposition Feel America Has Deserted Them

By ELI LAKE
New York Sun, NY
March 15, 2006

CAIRO, Egypt - Egyptian opposition leaders and democrats are asking whether, as America concentrates upon encouraging democracy in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Washington has abandoned its policy of pressing President Mubarak into liberalizing the police state he oversees.

Since November's flawed parliamentary elections, the country's independent judges have been under attack, local elections have been canceled, and boasts from Mr. Mubarak that Secretary of State Rice has dropped the democracy agenda have gone unanswered by the embassy here.

One of Egypt's leading reformer intellectuals, Saadeddin Ibrahim, said, "The public impression is that the United States has put the whole issue of democracy and liberalization on the back burner. They are either preoccupied or have been persuaded by Mubarak of other dangers in the West from the Islamists."

Such words are particularly harsh considering the source. When Mr. Ibrahim was jailed during the first term of the Bush presidency, Ms. Rice, in her role as national security adviser, personally appealed for his release to the Egyptian leader, going so far as to withhold discretionary assistance.

Today, Mr. Mubarak's presidential challenger from last fall, Ayman Nour, finds himself in jail. But Washington's calls for his release are quiet at best. While visiting Cairo last month, Ms. Rice said nothing of Mr. Nour's fate and did not meet with his wife.

A spokesman for the embassy here, John Berry, disputed Mr. Ibrahim's characterization yesterday. "I don't think it's true, it's not what the American government thinks." He pointed to Ambassador Ricciardone's remarks on March 12 at the Model American Congress, where he answered questions from the young people participating in the faux legislature.

In the question-and-answer session, however, the ambassador was hesitant to criticize the Mubarak regime. When asked his thoughts on the arrest of Mr. Nour, the ambassador began by saying, "Do you know I would actually like to ask all of you in this room that question? Because I bet if there are 100 people, I bet I'd get 100 different answers."

He said the perception in the West was Mr. Nour was arrested for political reasons, but never directly condemned his imprisonment. The ambassador joked during the meeting that Mr. Mubarak would probably do well in American elections, because he is a well-known world figure.

"They are continuing to harass Ayman," Mr. Ibrahim said yesterday. "Why didn't Secretary Rice say anything about the case? He has just been charged with harassing a police officer and they are calling him back to the court to face these new charges."

The state crackdown is expanding in scope. A handful of Egyptian judges who protested the second and third rounds of the Egyptian parliamentary elections are under investigation in a move observers here say is retribution for their efforts to block the ruling party from intimidating voters and stealing elections.

The vice president of al-Wafd party here, which is banned by the government from writing about politics in its newspaper, yesterday said that America is simply acting in its interests.

"As for the democracy agenda, I think that the Americans have to deal with more practical issues now: Iraq, Palestine, and Sudan," Mahmoud Abaza said. "So the importance of Mubarak's regime might now outweigh the benefits of attacking him publicly in the present moment. Another important aspect is that the theory of creative chaos has been proven to be dangerous, so yes, they might be withdrawing the democracy agenda for the moment."

This is the view that Mr. Mubarak has tried to convey. He crowed in the state press that last month Ms. Rice was a "good listener," and that democracy issues did not come up in their talk. When asked about Mr. Mubarak's characterization of those discussions yesterday, Mr. Berry said, "I cannot comment on a private conversation between Secretary Rice and President Mubarak."

However, in a June speech at the American University of Cairo, Ms. Rice said, "The Egyptian government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people - and to the entire world - by giving its citizens the freedom to choose."

One reason the Bush administration muted its support for democracy here is because of the electoral gains from both the Muslim Brothers last November in the parliamentary vote and Hamas, which now controls the legislature in the Palestinian Arab territories.

Hamas is included on America's list of foreign terrorist organizations. While the brotherhood has condemned terrorism in Egypt, its members have also helped create Hamas and consider suicide attacks against Israeli civilians to be a form of legitimate Islamic resistance.

The Bush administration is in a precarious situation in Egypt. As the seat of the Arab League, its diplomatic assistance is needed to make a case against Iran at the U.N. Security Council. Also, the Egyptians have stepped up training for Palestinian Arab security forces, a delicate task it could quit if the liberalization talk here became too hot.

"The State department is pretty much ignoring the whole democracy issue now," a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin, said yesterday. "The Hamas elections scared them. Rather than fine tune the policy, they are throwing the baby out with the bath water."

A coordinator for the youth wing of the coalition, known as Kefaya, which began staging anti-Mubarak rallies in 2004, agreed with Mr. Rubin's assessment, but considers it is a mistake. "They are fearing that Islamists would have the power to rule the country and this could be the outcome of fast democratization," Ahmad Salih said. "If the government here puts more pressure against us as a secular opposition, this would eventually lead to the opposite effect of what Washington wants. The only way to have a secular opposition is to give us space for democracy."

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