Monitoring Bush (a continuing series)

An early test of the Bush administration’s commitment to promoting democracy in the Middle East is coming up, according to Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl.

The appearance of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in Washington this week should bring to a head a bold attempt by their country’s strongman, Hosni Mubarak, to neuter President Bush’s campaign for democracy in the Middle East within weeks of his inaugural address.

Mubarak’s brazen gambit was encapsulated by two events on successive days last week. On Tuesday he played host in Sharm el-Sheikh as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a cease-fire. On Wednesday his police in Cairo arrested the deputy leader of the new, liberal democratic Tomorrow political party and banned its newspaper from publishing its first issue — even though 10 days before the Bush administration had strongly objected to the arrest of the party’s chairman, Ayman Nour.

According to Diehl:

Some officials tell me that the Egyptians will get a cool, if not cold, reception in Washington and will be told that the jailing of Nour and his deputy, Moussa Mustafa, is unacceptable. Bush, one source said, is “furious” about the arrests. A U.S. diplomatic letter has been drafted, but not yet dispatched, to other members of the Group of Eight industrial nations; it describes Mubarak’s political crackdown in harsh terms and suggests that G-8 participation in an early March meeting in Egypt with the Arab League should be reconsidered.

Other elements in the administration, including the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, are urging a more cautious approach to Mubarak.

[I]t argues that an overly aggressive U.S. reaction would play into the hands of Egyptian “hard-liners.” Such limp logic, of course, is exactly what the chief hard-liner — Mubarak — is counting on.

Let’s hope Mubarak’s envoys hear a reading of the riot act, for a change.