'Free to speak out' in Egypt

Monday, January 4, 2010

WHAT IS the U.S. position on democracy in Egypt? The American ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, was asked that question Dec. 14, during an appearance at an Egyptian university. She said: "In my time in Egypt, I have noticed that many Egyptians are very free to speak out. The press debates so many things."

The assembled students must have wondered if Ms. Scobey was talking about some other country. Egypt is rated 143rd out of 175 countries for press freedom by Reporters without Borders. Independent journalists who dare to criticize President Hosni Mubarak are routinely subjected to lawsuits by ruling party members that can result in prison sentences. Opposition bloggers have been beaten and harassed, and one, who called Mr. Mubarak "a symbol of tyranny," has been imprisoned for nearly three years. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of the foremost Egyptian campaigners for democracy, has been in exile since 2007 because of charges stemming from articles that he published in The Post.

Other than her curious praise for Egyptian free speech, Ms. Scobey did not say what the "U.S. position on democracy in Egypt" is. Instead she offered the generic disclaimer that "yes, the United States supports democratic values; we support respect for human rights and will work with anyone to those ends." In so doing, she echoed perfectly the tone set by the Obama administration so far in its dealings with Egypt and other autocratic governments of the Arab Middle East.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration correctly judged that an absence of political freedom was contributing to the growth of Islamic extremism, as was U.S. support for strongmen such as Mr. Mubarak. For a time it pressed Arab governments for democratic change, and it made some headway in Egypt before retreating in its final years. The Obama administration, in contrast, appears to have put democracy promotion in the region on a back burner. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it during a November press conference in Cairo, the administration's "vision" focuses on "education, human development, economic development and human rights." She didn't mention "democracy."

The new administration is obviously eager to distance itself from the policies of President George W. Bush. But this is a particularly unfortunate time for the United States to disregard the issue in Egypt. During the next two years the country will have two elections, for parliament and for president, that could determine whether the corrupt power structure maintained by the 81-year-old Mr. Mubarak remains in place. Egypt's democratic opposition movement has been pressing hard to make the elections genuinely free, and lately the cause has gotten a significant boost from Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his stewardship of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr. ElBaradei declared that he wants "to see Egypt become a democratic country" and would support constitutional reforms that would allow him and other independent candidates to run for president.

Here, it seems, is a genuine opportunity for the United States to press for democratic change. U.S. officials say that they have, in fact, been raising the elections in bilateral discussions with Cairo. But there has been no public indication that the administration supports Mr. ElBaradei's call for a genuinely competitive election. Instead, questions about democracy are answered with the sort of other-worldly rhetoric delivered by Ms. Scobey -- and funding for democracy programs in Egypt has been cut by 60 percent. That is a shame. The United States has sponsored education and economic development in Egypt for decades, without changing the country much. If the Obama administration neglects Egypt's elections, it, too, will fail.

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