DURING a brief political opening in 2005 Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to devote his next presidential term to modernizing and liberalizing the Egyptian political system. He did so largely to please the Bush administration, which then was calling on Egypt to "lead the way" in the democratization of the Middle East. The septuagenarian president was worried that Washington might object to his plan to extend his tenure in office, which began in 1981, by another six years.
Shortly after his "reelection" in a rigged vote, Mr. Mubarak began retreating on his promise. He jailed his challenger in the election, liberal democrat Ayman Nour; rigged parliamentary elections; and began a crackdown on opponents -- not just the Muslim Brotherhood but secular democrats and liberal bloggers. The Bush administration's initial protests slowly faded as opponents of President Bush's freedom agenda at the State Department assumed control over policy toward Egypt.
The administration's weakness has emboldened the aging autocrat. In late December he unveiled a series of constitutional amendments that purport to follow through on his 2005 promise but in fact do the opposite. Last Monday they were rubber-stamped by the parliament; the next day Mr. Mubarak abruptly announced that the referendum needed to ratify them would be held six days later. No one believes that tomorrow's vote will be free or fair, and opposition parties have announced a boycott.
The package essentially will make the "emergency laws" that have underpinned Mr. Mubarak's regime a permanent part of Egypt's political order. One amendment would write into the constitution the authority of police to carry out arrests, search homes, conduct wiretaps and open mail without a warrant and would give the president the authority to order civilians tried by military courts, where they have limited rights.
Other amendments would ban independent political candidates as well as parties based on religion, which would eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from parliament. Only parties with parliamentary representation would be able to nominate presidential candidates; since the government has refused to register most opposition parties and rigged parliamentary elections, there would be no alternative to the ruling party's choice.
The opposition and outside groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom House have rightly described the amendments as the greatest setback to freedom in Egypt in a quarter-century. Yet the Bush administration has barely reacted. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is visiting Egypt this weekend, said Friday that "it's disappointing" that Egypt hasn't proved to be a leader of liberalization. But the State Department is downplaying the constitutional amendments. While acknowledging some "concerns," a spokesman said last week that "a process of political reform has begun in Egypt" and that "you have to put this in the wider context."
Here's the wider context: The Bush administration used its considerable leverage over Egypt to force some initial steps toward democratic change two years ago. Then it slowly reversed itself and now has come full circle, once again embracing a corrupt autocracy. It's a shameful record, and one that Egyptians -- who, then as now, mostly despise their government -- won't quickly forget.