President Obama Embraces Egypt's Mubarak, but Not Egypt's Democrats

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

THE ARRIVAL of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak at the White House today, for the first time in more than five years, will mark for many the Obama administration's return to a policy that the Bush administration rightly repudiated. For decades, U.S. administrations embraced Mr. Mubarak and other Arab autocrats in exchange for their cooperation on regional security matters; their gross abuses of human rights were ignored. President Obama's aides deny that he has adopted this strategy, which produced the Middle East of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. But that's how it looks in Cairo: Leaders of Egypt's democratic opposition have been expressing deep disappointment with the new administration's reduction of aid to pro-reform groups and its public support for the 81-year-old autocrat, even as pro-regime media crow in triumph.

Middle East "realists," who seem to abound in the new administration, argue that Mr. Mubarak's help is needed to deliver an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and to contain pro-Iranian radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. But it's likely that they, like many U.S. policymakers before them, will be disappointed by the disparity between Mr. Mubarak's words and actions. For several years now, the Egyptian regime has been promising Washington that it will broker an end to the rift between Hamas and the more moderate Palestinian Authority, end the smuggling of weapons to militants in Gaza and obtain the release of an Israeli soldier held hostage since 2006. It has failed on all three counts.

Despite the Obama administration's friendly gestures, Mr. Mubarak's support for its policies has been lukewarm at best. He has publicly dismissed the White House's idea that Arab states should make confidence-building concessions to Israel in exchange for an Israeli freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. After again disparaging the administration's approach in a PBS television interview broadcast Monday, Mr. Mubarak went on to suggest that the United States was wrong to have intervened in Afghanistan.

No amount of coddling by Mr. Obama is likely to change the behavior of Mr. Mubarak, who has 28 years of experience in deflecting U.S. initiatives. What it might do is help the regime to reject domestic demands for political liberalization as a crucial transition of power approaches. Under pressure from the Bush administration, Mr. Mubarak changed Egypt's constitution to mandate direct presidential elections. The next one is due in 2011, and a fair vote, preceded by a broad liberalization, could transform the country for the better. But as U.S. pressure has eased, the regime has intensified political repression. On Monday it rejected the application by a centrist political party for legal registration. If Mr. Obama focuses his attention today on Mr. Mubarak and his dubious diplomatic contributions -- as opposed to the Egyptian people and their legitimate demands for political change -- the president will ignore the lessons of history.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company