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May 30, 2006 8:12 pm

Mubarak Gets Away With It

A turning point has happened in the Middle East--virtually without international notice, much less strong action--and yet will have a devastating effect on hopes for any improvement in the lives of tens of millions of people.

This development is the dashing of any hope for more democracy in Egypt and the reassertion of authoritarian rule.

Many events show the trend:

--The extension of the emergency law which has governed Egypt for decades. While there are legitimate reasons for special regulations given the threats from extremism and terrorism, this goes far beyond that to curb sharply even moderate and verbal dissent.

--The sentencing of Ayman Nour, the opposition candidate in the last election, to five years' imprisonment for allegedly falsifying petitions to get himself on the ballot. This happened despite the previous approval of the petitions by the government and the statement of one prosecution witness at the trial that he had been tortured into testifying.

--The use of massive police force to break up a peaceful demonstration held by the opposition in Cairo, with many of them being beaten up and arrested.

--The reprimand of a judge, Hesham Bastawisi, for criticizing the previous election as rigged. He was warned that he might be removed from his job. Judges have become the unlikely vanguard of those criticizing the regime's behavior and have even held anti-government demonstrations.

--Major riots in Alexandria after an old videotape of a play put on by Coptic Christians urging their young people to avoid efforts to convert them angered radical Islamists. While paying lip service to Muslim-Christian coexistence to boost its image internationally, the government does little or nothing to foster tolerance.

--Municipal elections, scheduled for this year, have been postponed.

Tarek Heggy, one of Egypt's leading intellectuals, noted in a television interview,"It is nothing but a joke that the regime talks about the importance of"gradual and non-rushing reforms" in the 25th year of the president" being in office."If the pace is like what we have been watching for a quarter of a century, it implies that the president's reform plan needs a minimum of 100 years to show modest results politically and economically."

What makes Egyptian reformers feel even worse is the total lack of international support for their efforts or opposition to the crackdown. For while all these things were going on, Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and apparently designated successor, was visiting the White House.

This was not just a courtesy call but is seen by Egyptians as an American endorsement of Gamal's taking over the country. The Egyptian republic--like that of Syria where the presidency passed from Hafiz al-Asad to his son Bashar--has become a hereditary monarchy.

The timing of the meeting with high U.S. officials suggests that America is indifferent to human rights or democracy in Egypt, in sharp contrast to stated U.S. policy to back such things as its highest priority. Unfortunately, it can be taken for granted that European states have even less interest in the continuation of autocracy in Egypt.

Yet this is not a cost-free situation for the West. The lack of freedom breeds radical Islamism as the sole apparent alternative to an unhappy status quo. Government incompetence, corruption, and statist policies ensure a lack of development that brings suffering to its people, emigration, and a readiness to engage in violence.

Moreover, on a daily basis, Egyptian schools, state-controlled media, bureaucrats in regime-manipulated professional groups, and government-paid clerics produce systematic anti-American and anti-Western propaganda. To cite just two examples, Egyptian schoolchildren are still taught that the U.S. air force attacked Egypt and destroyed its air force at the start of the 1967 war with Israel, while Egyptian newspapers say that the United States is carrying out all the terrorism in Iraq (and the September 11 attacks as well).

There is, of course, the legitimate claim of diplomatic and strategic interests compared to support for reform and change. U.S. Secretary of State C. David Welch outlined this dichotomy recently in congressional testimony. On one hand, he said, Egypt is"a cornerstone of our foreign policy in the Middle East." Egyptian support for U.S. policy is important on a range of issues from Iranian nuclear weapons to curbing terrorism or trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Welch explained that the United States was deeply disappointed at how the elections had been conducted and at Nour's imprisonment. The United States even postponed free trade talks with Egypt. At the same time, he called the elections, in which oppositionists were given a bit more opportunity, as a"major step forward" and opposed any reduction in U.S. aid for Egypt, as some have opposed in Congress.

Clearly, some kind of balance is needed. Yet what is happening is that the United States, and even more Europe, is signaling to the Egyptian regime and to other Arab dictatorships that no matter what they do to their own citizens they do not have to worry about external pressure. Egyptians perceive that the United States has given a green light to 25 more years of dictatorship. They can simultaneously view this as a reason for profound demoralization and even more distrust. That is a tragedy, and one that should not be happening.

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