More Bucks for Mr. Mubarak

Sunday, May 21, 2006

JUST A YEAR ago President Bush's policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East seemed to be having a real impact on America's biggest Arab client, Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak had begun the year by jailing his principal liberal democratic opponent, Ayman Nour. But when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice protested, Mr. Nour was released, and Mr. Mubarak announced Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election. Mr. Nour launched a vigorous campaign, and a lively opposition movement sprang up in Cairo. After decades of stagnation, one of the Middle East's most entrenched autocracies seemed to be liberalizing.

As it turned out, Mr. Mubarak wasn't serious. In the past six months the 78-year-old president has shut down the political opening and moved to crush his democratic opposition. Mr. Nour is back in jail, sentenced to five years in prison on patently bogus charges; on Thursday a Mubarak-controlled court rejected his final appeal. This year's elections have been put off, and a draconian "emergency" law was renewed despite Mr. Mubarak's promise to lift it. Egyptians who protest are arrested or beaten.

A step back like this is not unusual for a crumbling regime or an aging dictator. What's truly remarkable is the way in which the Bush administration has abruptly dropped its own attempt to promote Egyptian liberalization. The day after riot police violently put down a pro-democracy demonstration in Cairo this month, Mr. Bush, Vice President Cheney, Ms. Rice and other senior officials all found time to huddle privately with Mr. Mubarak's son, Gamal. Most Egyptians believe the son is being groomed to succeed his father; many are convinced that strategy explains the jailing of Mr. Nour and the suppression of the opposition.

Five days later, State Department Assistant Secretary David Welch appeared before Congress to testify that none of Egypt's $1.8 billion in annual aid -- the third-largest foreign subsidy in the world -- should be withheld, because "it would be damaging to our national interests." Mr. Welch lauded Mr. Mubarak for trying to prevent a Palestinian civil war and opposing an Iranian nuclear weapon, though in both cases the Egyptian leader was acting in his own interest; Mr. Welch didn't mention Mr. Mubarak's antagonism toward Iraq's new Shiite government or his frontal attacks on U.S. regional democracy initiatives. Instead, he delivered a textbook restatement of the traditional Arabist strategy Mr. Bush once loudly repudiated, in which autocrats are funded and their domestic brutality tolerated for geopolitical convenience.

Fortunately, not everyone in Congress is swallowing this craven reversal. This month the Senate passed an amendment transferring $47 million of Egypt's economic aid to other missions, such as drought relief in Africa; it awaits action in the House. There, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) has commissioned a timely study by the Government Accountability Office of the $60 billion in aid provided by the United States to Egypt since 1979. The GAO found that the State and Defense departments have no mechanisms in place to judge whether aid to Egypt is advancing U.S. interests; aid to Egypt, as Mr. Lantos put it, is "a political entitlement program with no real performance standard."

On Friday, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), citing Mr. Nour, said he would propose a cut of up to $200 million in military aid to Egypt when the foreign operations bill is taken up by the House Appropriations Committee. Such action deserves support. If Mr. Mubarak receives full U.S. funding for his army while the democrats who responded to Mr. Bush's call for change are beaten and imprisoned, America's "national interests" will truly be damaged.

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