Will the Obama administration enable more of Hosni Mubarak's autocracy?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010; A16

WHILE THE Obama administration was occupied with hosting a difficult ally -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- on Tuesday, another problematic friend took a big step toward perpetuating his corrupt and crumbling autocracy. Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, who celebrated his 82nd birthday last week, arranged for his rubber-stamp parliament to extend, for another two years, the emergency law under which he has ruled since October 1981. In so doing, he flouted an emerging mass movement that has called for the law's lifting, so that elections for parliament and president scheduled for the next 18 months can be genuinely democratic. He also violated the repeated pledges that he and his ruling party have made to end the emergency regime, dating back to 2005.

Last but not least, Mr. Mubarak took advantage of the policy of the Obama administration, which has chosen to soft-pedal the cause of democracy and human rights in Egypt and across the Middle East. Even as it has publicly demanded that Israel freeze Jewish settlements and that Mr. Karzai reform his government, the administration has gently stroked Egypt's strongman, on the theory that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship needed mending after the Bush administration.

The result is that Mr. Mubarak, despite his failing health, has been encouraged to work toward granting himself another six years in power in next year's presidential election. His previous presidential campaigns have been marked by massive fraud and the jailing or violent suppression of the opposition -- which is why he needs the emergency law. It allows police to arrest and indefinitely detain people without charge and makes free assembly by opposition groups virtually impossible. Mohammed ElBaradei, the former U.N. nuclear inspector who now leads the domestic reform movement, has pointed out that it will be impossible for him or anyone else to challenge Mr. Mubarak in the election if the law remains in place.

The regime knows that its action is difficult to justify. So on Tuesday it tried to dress up the renewal by claiming that the emergency law would be applied in the future only to cases of terrorism and drug trafficking, and that it would not be used to monitor communications or close down media. Yet the limitation to drug and terror cases was already the official standard -- and police have used the authority to imprison bloggers, newspaper editors and peaceful advocates of democratic change.

The administration's first reaction to this development was worthy. A statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the emergency law extension "regrettable" and urged that it be rescinded "within the coming months." The White House later issued a similarly strong statement. That should be the beginning of a more active policy. By using more of the United States' considerable diplomatic and economic leverage in Egypt, President Obama can still exploit a rare opportunity to support change in one of the Middle East's most important countries.

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