How Mr. Obama can help foster democracy in Egypt

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

AT THE United Nations last week President Obama recommitted his administration to the cause of human rights, which he described as a pragmatic as well as a moral interest of the United States. His rhetoric was strong and impressive, but human rights advocates, many of whom have been dissatisfied with Mr. Obama's record thus far, are waiting to see whether the administration will follow up with practical measures. One came on Wednesday, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner announced sanctions against eight senior Iranian officials on human rights grounds. The high-profile announcement could give important encouragement to Iran's opposition. But it's worth noting that the sanctions themselves were recently mandated by Congress.

Another opportunity for the administration lies in Egypt, which is on the verge of a momentous transition of power. President Hosni Mubarak, the country's autocratic ruler since 1981, is 82 and ailing; a presidential election is due in a year, and a parliamentary vote is scheduled for November. If nothing changes, both will be rigged by the regime, and the presidential transition will be decided by Mr. Mubarak and the Egyptian military and intelligence service -- possibly in favor of his son, Gamal. Another dynastic transfer of power in the Middle East would be a big setback for the U.S. interests Mr. Obama outlined in his U.N. address.

Those facts have won wide recognition in Congress, where a resolution authored by Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) has won broad and bipartisan support. The resolution urges Mr. Mubarak's regime "to take all steps necessary to ensure that upcoming elections are free, fair, transparent and credible, including granting independent international and domestic electoral observers unrestricted access."

The demand for observers is a reasonable one. Monitors from the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute were present for Egypt's 2005 elections; the chairs of those groups, Mr. McCain and former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright have written to Mr. Mubarak offering their services for the November balloting. There has been no response. Instead, the Egyptian government has launched an all-out lobbying campaign to block the Senate resolution, which is currently before the Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Obama's U.N. speech included a line saying that "it's time for every member state to open its elections to international monitors." After the president's last meeting with Mr. Mubarak this month, a White House summary said Mr. Obama had referred to the need for "credible and transparent elections in Egypt." The question is whether the administration is willing to take action in support of its words. So far, it has offered no indication that Mr. Mubarak's failure to accept election observers will result in any consequence for a country that receives $1.5 billion annually in American aid. Nor has the White House offered support for the Senate resolution, in public or in private. It could, at least, do that.


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