A First Answer to Egypt

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

THE BUSH administration has taken a first step toward adjusting its relationship with Egypt following President Hosni Mubarak's flagrant violation of his promises to lead a transition to democracy. An Egyptian delegation that was to visit Washington this month to discuss a free-trade agreement has been disinvited, and the agreement itself was put on hold. Thanks to Mr. Mubarak's autocratic backsliding -- including his crude persecution and imprisonment of his leading liberal opponent, Ayman Nour -- Egypt will continue to lag behind Jordan, Morocco and other modernizing Arab states that enjoy tariff-free access to U.S. markets. For Egypt's business community and the reformist technocrats in its cabinet, the message should be clear: Egypt won't join the global economic mainstream unless it abandons its corrupt dictatorship.

For much of the past year Mr. Mubarak, 77, sought to convince the Bush administration that he could dismantle the autocracy he has presided over for nearly a quarter-century. He changed the constitution to allow a multi-candidate election for president; allowed more open debate in the press; and eased repression of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement. Though his own reelection in September was heavily manipulated, Mr. Mubarak promised to carry out a long list of reforms in his new term, including more freedom for the media, independence for judges, greater authority for parliament and reform of the emergency laws that give him dictatorial power.

Now Mr. Mubarak has squandered the tenuous credibility he had acquired in Washington. When the Muslim Brotherhood's candidates performed better than expected in the first rounds of parliamentary elections in November, his government used fraud and brutality to alter the final results; security forces opened fire on voters trying to cast ballots. Mr. Mubarak, meanwhile, set out to crush Mr. Nour, a moderate, secular politician who won 8 percent of the presidential vote on a platform of liberal democracy. Though far weaker than Islamic leaders, Mr. Nour, 41, poses a threat to Mr. Mubarak's 42-year-old son, Gamal, who also presents himself as a moderate reformist. Without Mr. Nour, the only choices in Egypt are the Mubarak family and the Muslim Brotherhood. That's why Mr. Nour was sentenced on Dec. 24 to five years of hard labor on bogus charges of forgery.

Mr. Mubarak calculates that President Bush will eventually overlook this crude maneuver and will choose to accept, again, promises that his regime will make Egypt a democracy. Already, his government has brazenly petitioned the administration for hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid this year -- over and above the $1.8 billion Egypt regularly receives -- ostensibly in compensation for its efforts to maintain security in the Gaza Strip. U.S. officials say this request will be rejected -- as it should be. Instead, Egypt's standing aid allocation and, in particular, its military component should be subjected to a rigorous review by the administration and Congress.

While there may not be ready alternatives to Mr. Mubarak, it is foolish not to connect one of the largest U.S. foreign subsidies to vital American interests. First among those interests is concrete steps toward the construction of a political system that will allow Egypt's next president and parliament to be elected democratically. That means the lifting of emergency laws, the legalization of centrist parties that Mr. Mubarak keeps banned, and the removal of controls from the press and independent civil society groups. Ayman Nour should be freed and allowed to work unhindered for the constitutional reform he advocates. If Mr. Mubarak will not take these steps -- this year -- then it is not in the U.S. interest to keep funding his armed forces.

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