Backpedaling in Egypt

Thursday, May 4, 2006

WHY DOES the administration continue to give nearly $2 billion each year to a government that mocks President Bush's democracy initiative? That's an obvious question in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak's reneging this week on his earlier promise to end emergency rule in Egypt.

Mr. Mubarak, who turns 78 today, has been a friendly-to-America dictator since 1981, with emergency rule one of his chief internal weapons all that time. The law allows him to imprison political opponents without charge for six months; when the six months are up, his security forces often rearrest their hapless prey. The Egyptian president, who is hoping to accomplish a pharaonic succession to his son Gamal, tries to eradicate any sprouts of liberal, secular opposition. Then he can confront Mr. Bush with an unappetizing choice between autocracy and Islamist fundamentalism.

Not so long ago Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were rejecting such tactics as detrimental to global security as well as to Egypt's peace and prosperity. Under pressure, Mr. Mubarak promised reforms, including multi-candidate elections and an end to emergency rule.

Now, though, he apparently feels less pressure. He undermined political progress in Iraq with inflammatory criticism of Shiite Muslims (Egypt is mostly Sunni). He has imprisoned his chief liberal challenger on sham charges. Recently he went after two judges who dared point out irregularities in Mr. Mubarak's reelection last year with 88 percent of the vote. A protest in defense of the judges was broken up by more security forces than showed up in response to recent terrorist bombings in Sinai.

Those bombings provide Mr. Mubarak with a pretext for more repression. But he was readying the extension of emergency rule before the bombings took place. So why the $2 billion? It's true that a Mubarak-ruled Egypt is better than some imaginable alternatives. But the administration and Congress shouldn't limit themselves to Mr. Mubarak's no-win options. If they want to help Egypt, aid should go to that nation's civic society and democratic reformers, not the corrupt regime that persecutes those who favor a freedom agenda.

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