By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 9, 2009
MAHALLAH AL-KOBRA, Egypt -- Four months after President Obama delivered an address from Cairo in which he voiced American commitment to human rights and the rule of law, concern is mounting among Egypt's pro-reform activists that the United States is abandoning its long-standing efforts to bring democratic reforms to the Arab world's most populous nation.
Since the speech, Egyptian security forces have launched a fresh campaign against the banned Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamist opposition group, arbitrarily arresting hundreds of members, from young bloggers to senior leaders. The government has prevented a centrist opposition movement from legally becoming a political party. In this Nile Delta industrial city, the epicenter of recent worker strikes, the government has appeared unresponsive to labor concerns -- or is cracking down.
"We are very disgruntled with President Obama," said Kamal al-Fayoumi, a labor leader who was jailed by the government for launching a major strike last year. "He has given the regime the green light to do what it wants with the Egyptian people."
U.S. pressure for democratic reforms in Egypt, once effective, waned in the final years of the Bush administration. But critics charge that the pressure has significantly eased at a time when Egypt is nearing a crucial political transition: The presidential election is set for 2011, and speculation is rife that incumbent Hosni Mubarak, 81, will anoint son Gamal as his successor before the election, raising fears that the regime will undemocratically extend its 28-year-old rule.
"We may have changed tactics, but our commitment to democracy and human rights promotion in Egypt is steadfast," a U.S. Embassy official said in an e-mailed response to questions. Senior American officials will continue to raise these issues in meetings with Egyptian counterparts, the official added.
The frustrations have been compounded by sharp cuts in U.S. funding for democracy programs in Egypt as much as by the Obama administration's soft tone and warmer relationship with the Mubarak government. Activists say Obama's middle-ground approach could have significant repercussions in a region dominated by autocrats, who respond only to pressure.
"His reduced talk of democracy is giving these non-democratic regimes the security that they won't face pressure. And that's having a negative impact on democracy in the Arab world," said Ayman Nour, a prominent opposition politician.
Today, the Obama administration is increasingly relying on Egypt to jump-start the Arab-Israeli peace process and to contain pro-Iran radical groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Obama has met with Mubarak three times, reestablishing Egypt's position as a key strategic ally in the Arab world. This marks a significant departure from the Bush administration, during which tensions between Washington and Cairo raged over U.S. policies in the Middle East, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and American criticism of Egypt's political and human rights record.
The clearest indication yet of the U.S. shift is the funding cuts, activists say. Last year, the United States allocated $54.8 million for democracy programs, of which $27.85 million went to civil society programs, the nexus of grass-roots activism for democracy. This year, the funding has shrunk to $20 million, of which $5 million went to civil society groups. The cuts were made by the Bush administration; for 2010, the Obama administration has allocated $25 million, an increase from this year's funding but still well below the 2008 figure. The U.S. Embassy official said an additional $4 million in funding for civil society groups would come from other sources.
Although the Bush administration's policies were largely reviled across the Arab world, many Egyptians credit them with ushering in some political reforms. Under U.S. pressure, Egypt held its first contested presidential election. Independent newspapers, Web sites and blogs flourished.
"The truth is it was pressure by George Bush that brought political reforms and political mobilization," said Ibrahim Issa, a columnist and government critic who was jailed for writing that Mubarak was ill.
Senior Egyptian officials openly admit they prefer Obama to Bush.
"He is not interfering in the domestic affairs of countries," said Ali Eddin Helal, a top spokesman for the ruling National Democratic Party. "He's not trying to achieve objectives through confrontation or pressure, but through brokering and reconciliation."
Nour, the opposition politician, was a beneficiary of American pressure. Criticism of the regime mounted after he was jailed on unsubstantiated fraud charges in the wake of the 2005 election. He was freed this year. The release was widely seen as a bid by Mubarak to improve relations with the Obama administration -- and to send a signal that any U.S. pressure would be counterproductive.
In an interview, Nour shook his head when asked whether he thought the Obama administration would apply similar pressure if the government were to jail him again.
"They are focused on Israel," Nour said. "They believe the current regime works, so they shouldn't take any risks."
Others sense a growing fatigue. "The Americans, I think, are fed up with the Egyptians," said Anwar E. el-Sadat, the nephew of assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and an opposition leader. "They have been spending millions promoting democracy, and nothing happened."
The government, meanwhile, is escalating its crackdown. On Saturday, 16 Muslim Brotherhood members were detained on charges of violating a law that requires government approval to hold a political gathering.
The Muslim Brotherhood's opposition to U.S. policies in the Middle East, as well as its popularity, ultimately helped to doom the Bush administration's push for political reforms. American officials worried that the Islamists could one day replace Mubarak if democracy took root.
Many activists fear that the Obama administration feels the same way -- and will legitimize what many expect will be Gamal Mubarak's ascendancy in a nation that has never experienced a democratic transfer of power.
"We were hoping Obama would be different than other U.S. administrations," said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights. "But America is concerned more about stability than democracy."