Mr. Mubarak's reversal

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Friday, October 29, 2010; 8:28 PM

WHEN HE met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in September, President Obama brought up the need for "a vibrant civil society, open political competition, and credible and transparent elections in Egypt," according to a White House summary. It was a well-timed intervention: Egypt's parliamentary elections are scheduled for next month, and a broad pro-democracy movement is pressing for reforms, beginning with the regime's acceptance of domestic and international poll monitors.

Since then Mr. Mubarak has done exactly the opposite of what the president asked. Not only has his government rejected monitoring of the elections, but it has launched a crackdown against opposition movements and the media. More than 260 activists of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won 20 percent of the seats in the last parliamentary election, have been arrested. A leading opposition journalist, Ibrahim Eissa, was fired from the editorship of a newspaper, and a television show he hosted was canceled - moves he attributed to government pressure. Seventeen private television channels have been shut down, and the permits of companies that have enabled live broadcasts of street protests were revoked. The government also imposed new restrictions on text messaging, which has been used by opposition media and organizers.

Mr. Mubarak's tightening sharply contrasts with his behavior during Egypt's last major election season, in 2005. Then he loosened controls on the media, introduced a constitutional amendment allowing the first contested election for president, and released his principal secular challenger from jail. He did all this under heavy pressure from then-President George W. Bush, who had publicly called on Egypt to "lead the way" in Arab political reform.

Egypt's backsliding is not Mr. Obama's fault. But Mr. Mubarak's actions reflect a common calculation across the Middle East: that this U.S. president, unlike his predecessor, is not particularly interested in democratic change. Mr. Obama has exhibited passion on the subject of Israel's West Bank settlements; he and his top aides have publicly pressured, and sometimes castigated, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. If the president is similarly troubled by Mr. Mubarak's defiance, he has yet to show it.

To be sure, lower-level administration officials have spoken up. "These issues of human rights and democracy are vitally important to us," Assistant Secretary of State Michael H. Posner said at a press conference earlier this month in Cairo, during which he discussed the media and election monitoring issues. But Egypt's rulers are used to brushing off State's admonitions. If Mr. Obama is serious about what he said to Mr. Mubarak - and he should be - he will have to give it the same priority and personal attention that he gives to Israel's transgressions.


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