Monitoring Bush: easing the pressure on Mubarak

For some years I’ve been tracking the Bush administration’s willingness to confront the repressive regime of our “friend” Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

For awhile there was some reason for optimism. In February 2005 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed “very strong concerns” about Egypt’s jailing of opposition leader Ayman Nour and said she wanted the situation resolved quickly. She postponed a scheduled visit to Egypt because of the jailing.

In June 2005 Rice delivered a speech in Cairo, in which she declared: “Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.”

In January 2006, responding to the Egyptian government’s reimprisonment of Ayman Nour, the Bush administration halted negotiations with Cairo over a free trade agreement. Then in February, Rice held a joint news conference with Egypt’s foreign minister in which she said:

The President made very clear in his State of the Union that the United States would stand for the right of men and women in every corner of the earth to have the same rights and indeed the same responsibilities that we as Americans are fortunate enough to enjoy. And he said that our relations with countries around the world would — we would engage countries around the world about that principle. And that’s what we’re doing.

Now Ayman Nour, who challenged Mubarak in Egypt’s September 2005 presidential election, is serving a five-year prison sentence on an obviously phony charge. The regime is going after bloggers too. But when Rice visited Egypt this month, writes Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post, she had nothing to say publicly on the subject.

Before Rice arrived in Cairo this time, the city was buzzing about Internet videos — not of Saddam Hussein but of Egyptian police who had been captured torturing innocent citizens. Mubarak had just announced a series of constitutional amendments that would exclude serious opposition candidates from future elections and curtail independent judicial monitoring of balloting…

About all this, Rice said nothing. Instead, she praised the “important strategic relationship” with the 78-year-old Mubarak. In Rice’s new parlance, Egypt has suddenly become part of a “moderate mainstream” in the Middle East, which, the secretary hopes, will stand with the United States and Israel against the “extremists” — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Rice has made no real attempt to explain the somersault in her policy, which comes across as a feckless attempt to simplify the increasingly chaotic and dangerous situation across the region.

I know that Egypt’s decades of repression and stagnation have created a lot of support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement. But that doesn’t justify a hands-off attitude to the repression. Rather it demands more support for liberal democrats like Nour and the bloggers.

President Bush said a few years ago:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.

He had a point, didn’t he? Even if he and his administration no longer remember it.

Update: The Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil went on trial last week, charged with “inciting sedition, insulting Islam, harming national unity and insulting the president.”

(Hat tip: G. Tingey in the comments.)