Mr. Mubarak's Rollback
EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Hosni Mubarak tried twice last year to stage a democratic election that would impress the Bush administration as credible without risking his hold on power. He failed both times and on both counts. His crude harassment of his secular opposition and sometimes violent suppression of would-be voters was roundly condemned in both Washington and Cairo; at the same time, the banned Muslim Brotherhood managed to quintuple its representation in parliament. Now Mr. Mubarak is moving away from even the pretense of democracy. In December he arranged for a pro-regime judge to sentence his chief opponent in September's presidential election, the liberal democrat Ayman Nour, to five years in prison on trumped-up charges. Last week he issued a decree calling off local elections that were due to be held by mid-April and that probably would have yielded still more gains for the Islamists.
Mr. Mubarak's apologists claim that the election was postponed -- nominally for two years -- to make way for a constitutional reform giving more power to local governments. Even Egyptians normally sympathetic to the regime laugh off this nonsense. As so often, the 77-year-old dictator's strategy is crudely obvious: He wishes to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from winning seats on local councils because, under the byzantine terms of the presidential election law passed last year, it might then gain the legal right to nominate a candidate in the next presidential election. At the moment, only the ruling party qualifies to nominate a contender, which means that there would be no opposition if Mr. Mubarak proposed his 43-year-old son, Gamal.
The Egyptian ruler might seem to be risking the ire of the Bush administration, which suspended free-trade negotiations with Egypt last month after the imprisonment of Mr. Nour. But Mr. Mubarak figures that the tide in Washington has turned against President Bush's democracy policy. After all, Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections caused "neo-realists" in both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as Israel's supporters in Congress, to denounce Mr. Bush for pressing for elections in Arab societies. Mr. Mubarak's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, is busy working with his U.S. and Palestinian counterparts to dilute the Hamas victory by consolidating the power of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who a year ago canceled a visit to Cairo in order to protest the prosecution of Mr. Nour, will soon visit Egypt to coordinate the containment policy. Surely she won't seriously object to Mr. Mubarak's attempt to prevent another electoral victory for the Islamists?
So far, such calculations look about right. The election-quashing prompted only a tepid statement from Ms. Rice's spokesman, who said the administration opposed the postponement of elections "as a matter of principle" but added, in an echo of the administration's critics, that "democracy is not only about elections." In his State of the Union speech last month Mr. Bush said something different: "Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning." Egypt, he added, "should open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism." Is this what he had in mind?