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.
Mubarak is betting that Gheit and Suleiman will be greeted at the State Department and White House as close collaborators in a budding Israeli-Palestinian detente, not as representatives of a government engaged in an expanding crackdown on its secular and democratic opposition. If so, the 76-year-old president will feel secure in continuing a campaign aimed at crushing what has been mounting opposition among the Egyptian political and business elite to his plan to extend his quarter-century in office by six years through a rigged referendum this fall. His son, Gamal, waits in the wings to succeed him.
Bush, who in his State of the Union speech called on Egypt to "show the way" toward democracy in the Middle East, will look feckless and foolish if a regime so deeply dependent on U.S. military and economic aid stages another fraudulent election while jailing the very politicians who support his vision. But Mubarak is betting that this U.S president, like those who preceded him, won't seriously confront him or threaten his economic lifeline at a sensitive moment in the "peace process."
He may or may not be right. 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.
One official I spoke to pointed out that Condoleezza Rice is due to pay her first visit as secretary of state to the Arab Middle East for the Arab League meeting. If Nour is not freed, the official predicted, Rice may cancel the trip: "She is not going to sit there like a potted plant while the Egyptians do this." But Rice hasn't addressed the issue, and there is no consensus inside the administration on such a tough response. Predictably, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is urging caution; it 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.
Whatever comes of the Nour affair, the State Department has launched a committee to review policy toward Egypt. That will give democracy advocates at State and the White House a platform for arguing that relations with Cairo should be fundamentally shifted in the coming year. They can count on support in Congress, where key Republicans, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have grown increasingly impatient with Mubarak's refusal to liberalize.
Few believe that Mubarak can now be stopped from granting himself another term as president. But proponents of change will argue that Bush must at least push Mubarak to make a major concession to his moderate opposition. This is not a matter of the United States dictating reform: Nour, a new coalition of political groups and even some officials in the ruling party have been pressing for a constitutional rewrite that would make future elections democratic and limit the president's power and tenure. They also want lifted the "emergency laws" that Mubarak has used to suppress political activity. Bush need only embrace this homegrown agenda.
The old autocrat probably won't yield unless his annual dose of $1.2 billion in U.S. aid is put at stake. Critics have been arguing for years that that huge subsidy, which dates to the Cold War, buys the United States little but greater enmity from the millions of Arabs who loathe the region's corrupt autocracies and blame the United States for propping them up. The fact is, Mubarak has far more to lose than Bush from a rupture in U.S.-Egyptian relations. By contrast, if the dictator sails to reelection with the apparent consent of Washington, it is Bush who will be the big loser.