A Cheer for Mr. Mubarak

Thursday, May 26, 2005

LAURA BUSH'S tour of the Middle East was cast as a way to earn badly needed goodwill for the United States in a region that her husband seeks to transform. Mrs. Bush duly promoted women's education in Jordan and the peace process in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Yet when the first lady arrived in Egypt she chose to lavish her own goodwill not on that country's struggling pro-democracy movement but on 77-year-old strongman Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Mubarak plans to extend his 24-year tenure in office through a September election from which most of his opposition is excluded. Hundreds of political activists have been arrested in recent weeks for trying to peacefully protest that plan, and even legal opposition candidates have been forcibly prevented from campaigning.

The Bush administration says that it is committed to supporting such dissidents. But Mrs. Bush sided squarely with Mr. Mubarak, who frequently condemned the U.S. democracy initiative in the Middle East before abruptly announcing elections on his own terms. "President Mubarak has taken a very bold step," Mrs. Bush repeated on numerous occasions. Echoing the dictator's most common refrain, she added, "You know that each step is a small step, that you can't be quick." When reporters told her the Egyptian opposition was dismayed by this endorsement, she went further: "To act like you can just go from here to there overnight is naive . . . we know that's not easy and we know that it's, in many cases, not even possible." Really? We wonder if the Iraqis who turned out to vote Jan. 30, or their newly elected leaders, would support that view.

Mrs. Bush's intervention occurred at a critical moment, because Mr. Mubarak had called for yesterday's referendum to approve the constitutional amendment that will govern presidential elections. By its terms, independent candidates have to obtain signatures from 250 members of parliament and local councils, almost all of whom are members of Mr. Mubarak's own party. Only candidates from parties previously approved by the government, most of them moribund, tame or tiny, will be allowed to challenge the sitting president. The most credible of these, liberal democrat Ayman Nour, was forced to suspend public campaigning after a busload of his supporters was attacked by a pro-government mob. Mr. Nour also faces trial next month on trumped-up forgery charges.

Many Arab autocrats have staged bogus elections in the past, which is why the critical question about Egypt this year is whether Mr. Mubarak's vote will turn out, in practice, to be recognizably democratic or merely another farce. So far the answer is obvious, which is why the opposition called for a boycott of the referendum, why the pro-democracy movement tried to stage peaceful protests on Tuesday and yesterday -- and why these efforts at free assembly were violently broken up by Mr. Mubarak's police. Only a forceful intervention from the White House could induce Egypt's dictator to hold an election that is close to free and fair. Instead he -- and the Egyptian people -- have heard from Laura Bush that his mockery of democracy is worthy of applause.

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