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Watch That Welcome

Monday, February 16, 2009; A14

IT'S BEEN nearly five years since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Washington. The strongman boycotted President George W. Bush's second term because of Mr. Bush's efforts to promote political liberalization in Egypt. Now, with the advent of an administration that seems skeptical of its predecessor's "freedom agenda," the 80-year-old Mr. Mubarak is eager to turn back the clock to the relationship with Washington that he used to enjoy -- in which Egypt collected $2 billion in U.S. aid each year and American administrations ignored the regime's persecution of all opposition, including pro-democracy and human rights activists. Mr. Mubarak is said to be seeking a date to meet President Obama in the next couple of months.

Mr. Obama will not want to openly spurn the Egyptian leader. But it's vital that he not grant Mr. Mubarak an unconditional invitation. Governments throughout the Middle East, and the many Arabs working for democratic change in their countries, will be watching to see if the Egyptian ruler gets a free pass. If he does, the administration will send the region the message that the corrupt old status quo -- in which the United States backed Arab dictators in exchange for help with U.S. strategic interests -- has been restored. That would inflict crippling damage on Mr. Obama's attempt to restore U.S. credibility and prestige, particularly with the millions of secular, middle-class Arabs who chafe under corrupt autocracies.

Mr. Mubarak's allies will argue that he deserves a reward for Egypt's efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But that diplomacy, which has yet to produce results, has been conducted entirely in line with Egypt's interests. Cairo seeks to avert further warfare on its border, but it has also resisted decisive measures to stop the trafficking of weapons to Hamas. Domestic opponents who have sought to peacefully protest the government's policy have been harshly suppressed.

Persecution of other regime opponents also has noticeably increased since Mr. Obama's election. Government prosecutors recently filed treason charges in a state security court against dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was forced into exile after he shook Mr. Bush's hand at a 2007 conference of pro-democracy activists in Prague. The new charge reportedly cites articles that Mr. Ibrahim has written for The Post; his most recent, published on the opposite page on Dec. 20, called on Mr. Obama not to make Cairo the first Muslim capital he visits.

There is a simple way for Mr. Obama to make it clear to Mr. Mubarak that he will not tolerate such persecution. He can follow Mr. Ibrahim's advice -- and quietly let Mr. Mubarak know that he will be welcome at the White House as soon as the charges against Mr. Ibrahim are dropped and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour is released from prison. Those are small and simple steps that are within Mr. Mubarak's personal discretion. If he refuses, why should Mr. Obama accommodate an old strongman's wish to be seen with -- and legitimized by -- a popular new president?

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