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Obama Will Have to Decide If He's on the Side of Democratic Reformers in the Middle East

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, November 17, 2008; A19

Some Europeans danced in the streets when Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election. Kenya declared a national holiday. In Egypt the celebration was somewhat different: Government-controlled goons burned down the headquarters of the liberal democratic party that tried to embrace President Bush's "freedom agenda."

Ayman Nour, the popular young leader of that party, challenged Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first contested presidential election in 2005. He did so in large part because of Bush, who called on Egypt to "show the way" in the democratization of the Middle East. Mubarak won the election handily, then used a handpicked judge to sentence Nour to prison on trumped-up charges. The would-be democratic reformer has been behind bars ever since. Mubarak has ignored the Bush administration's mostly sotto voce appeals on Nour's behalf, and the State Department long ago shelved the freedom agenda for Egypt.

With Bush now on his way out, Mubarak is losing his remaining inhibitions. Two days after Obama's election, Nour's wife, Gameela Ismail, and other party leaders held a meeting. A party faction sponsored by the regime marched on the building in which they had gathered and -- as photographs posted on the Internet clearly show -- used aerosol cans to set fire to it. Police, who stood by while the attack took place, later tried to blame Ismail and the other party leaders, who were nearly trapped by the blaze. Now these leaders may face criminal charges.

The episode is significant because it demonstrates a principal conclusion that Mubarak and other "pro-Western" autocrats seem to have drawn from Obama's election: that the threat of U.S. pressure for political liberalization has passed. Eighty-year-old Mubarak, who has not visited the United States since 2003 because of resentment toward Bush, is convinced that the next president won't pester him about human rights, reports the Egyptian press. After all, in his message to the world on election night, Obama said: "To those who seek peace and security, we support you." Peace and security, in exchange for autocracy, is the bargain Mubarak has always offered Washington.

Democrats tend to be contemptuous of Bush's Middle East democracy campaign, and not without reason. Iraqi elections divided the country along sectarian lines and nearly touched off a civil war, while a Palestinian election brought Hamas to power. Egypt's experiment with greater electoral freedom abruptly ended after the Muslim Brotherhood won scores of seats in a 2006 parliamentary vote. Obama's advisers speak of a more "realistic" policy, one that would lower expectations for political change across the region.

Yet Obama may not find it so easy to put Arab democracy on a back burner. Whether or not he approves, a series of fateful elections is likely to be held in the Middle East over the next three years -- in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and -- yes -- Egypt. Iraq's provincial elections early next year will reshape Sunni and Shiite leadership and perhaps determine whether the political stability Obama needs to safely withdraw U.S. troops can be achieved. A Palestinian election due next year may settle whether Hamas or the moderate Mahmoud Abbas wins the ongoing Palestinian power struggle -- and whether the Obama administration can broker a Middle East peace settlement.

In late 2009, both Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai face national elections. And in 2011 Mubarak's presidential term will expire, setting up what the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Abdel Baky calls "a watershed one way or another for the future of democracy in the Middle East."

In a paper for the Arab Reform Bulletin of the Carnegie Endowment, Abdel Baky argues that Mubarak is unlikely to remain in office and that the regime will be obliged by its own constitution to hold an election to replace him -- quite possibly featuring his son Gamal. "If the United States claims that it is committed to supporting democratic change in the Arab world," he writes, "then this is a historic opportunity -- which will not recur -- to restore its credibility in the eyes of the Arab citizenry."

The question Obama will face is not whether elections will take place -- none of those scheduled could be canceled without violence. He will, instead, have to decide whether to insist that the votes be free and fair, and their results respected. In Egypt, that will bring him back to the case of Nour, who could be released from prison by July and who in a recent statement made clear that he intends to challenge the Mubaraks again. "I am now confident more than ever before about the fairness and legitimacy of this battle," Nour said. "The battle of the last presidential election . . . will not be the last round." The burning of his headquarters underlined the message for the next American president: This is a struggle in which he will be forced to take sides.

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