Egypt Shuts Door on Dissent As U.S. Officials Back Away

A supporter of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, foreground, challenges government supporters during a clash near Cairo in 2005. The country's democracy movement has withered under repression by a government that remains a key U.S. ally.
A supporter of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, foreground, challenges government supporters during a clash near Cairo in 2005. The country's democracy movement has withered under repression by a government that remains a key U.S. ally. (Photos By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 19, 2007

CAIRO -- On June 20, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped onto the arabesque campus of the American University in Cairo, built around a former pasha's palace, and delivered a call to action that overturned decades of American policy in the Arab world.

"For 60 years," she said, "my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people." For five paragraphs of her speech, diplomatic niceties made way for a series of declarative "musts" directed at Egypt's government: It must give its citizens the freedom to choose, Egyptian elections must be free, opposition groups must be free to assemble and participate. The Egyptian government, Rice said, "must put its faith in its own people."

The language was black-and-white, but America's relationship with Egypt -- with President Hosni Mubarak and with the reform movement -- never is.

Nearly two years later, the legacy of Rice's words is intimately tied to the fate of Egypt's democracy movement, divided and withering under unrelenting repression by a government that remains one of America's key allies in the region. What began as a test of American mettle ended in failure to bring about far-reaching change in a country that has received more per capita U.S. aid than Europe did under the post-World War II Marshall Plan. In the eyes of activists and, at times, the government itself, that failure stands as a narrative of misperception about the people Americans sought to court, and of naivete about those the Americans wanted to reform.

In the end, they say, pragmatic priorities triumphed over promises.

"The Americans now prefer stability over democracy," said George Ishaq, a demoralized opposition leader.

He fell silent, then narrowed his eyes. "I will never trust them again."

Shaped by Contradictions

In the more optimistic weeks after Rice's speech in 2005, Abul-Ela Maadi, a founder of the opposition movement Kifaya, saw a flicker of hope in the secretary of state's words. "Most of it was good," he said. "Most of it." And the rest? He shook his head.

Contradictions mark almost every facet of America's relationship with Egypt. The country has served as a linchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East since it signed a treaty with Israel in 1979. Generous aid followed that agreement, in part as a reward, although never matching the totals for Israel. The U.S. Agency for International Development has given $28 billion since 1975. Military aid over the past quarter-century has totaled $33 billion. Yet today, opinion surveys almost always rank anti-American sentiment higher in Egypt than in any other Arab country.

In a way, those contradictions shaped the sentiments of the activists who coalesced around Kifaya. In contrast to members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, they were largely secular (with the exception of figures such as Maadi), steeped in the language of human rights and typically socially liberal. Maadi admitted freely, as others did grudgingly, that the pressure the Bush administration exerted in 2004 and 2005 helped curb government repression, providing crucial space for their work. At the peak of the pressure, protesters gathered unmolested, as they did the day Rice spoke. As it receded, the brutishness of Egyptian police and state-supervised thugs mounted proportionately.

But a striking irony underlined America's relationship with the movement: The activism that flourished in 2005 was spurred less by the Bush administration's support and more by opposition to its politics -- in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and even Egypt. As activists negotiated government repression and tepid popular backing that year, they had to grapple as well with their stance toward avowed U.S. support. Maadi said he and his colleagues in Kifaya often felt an urgency to act before their agenda was tainted by association with U.S. aims.

"Any relationship with any foreign power, but especially the Americans, is the kiss of death," he said. "We don't need this kiss."

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