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Egypt's Mr. Mubarak moves to lawless repression

Friday, November 5, 2010;

LAST APRIL, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak disregarded appeals from the Obama administration and violated his own public promises by renewing the "emergency law" that for decades has allowed security forces to prevent public demonstrations, break up political meetings, close media outlets and arrest opposition activists without charge. When the administration protested, Egyptian officials assured it that the law henceforth would be applied only in terrorism and drug cases. The White House cited that pledge in a recent summary of its human rights accomplishments.

Now, with a parliamentary election approaching, the regime's political repression has grown more rather than less severe. Hundreds of political activists from the banned Muslim Brotherhood party have been arrested; critical television talk shows and newspaper columns have been canceled; student leaders have been rounded up. In a number of recent cases, peaceful political activists, including those supporting secular democratic movements, have been "disappeared": abducted and held for days by the secret police and sometimes beaten or tortured, before being released on roads outside Cairo.

As he pledged, Mr. Mubarak has done all this without use of the emergency law. Instead the regime has begun acting entirely outside the rule of law. The young activists who have been beaten or kidnapped have no recourse; there is no case to contest, and they are unable even to identify those who assault them.

This slide by Egypt toward the police-state methods usually associated with Syria or Sudan is a problem for the United States as well as for Egyptians. Mr. Mubarak is 82 and ailing; by rejecting political liberalization and choosing deeper repression, he is paving the way for even worse developments once he dies and the struggle to succeed him begins. Mr. Mubarak's successors will need to acquire political legitimacy; if they cannnot do so through democracy they probably will resort to nationalism and anti-Americanism.

Fortunately there are signs that the White House is at last waking up to its Egypt problem. This week a number of senior officials met with an ad hoc group of foreign policy experts who have been trying to call attention to the need for a change in U.S. policy. Some good ideas were discussed, such as a strong presidential statement about the conduct of the elections or the dispatch of a special envoy to Cairo. A new U.S. ambassador committed to political change, rather than apologizing for the regime, would help. What's most important is to make clear to Mr. Mubarak that the administration expects some immediate, even if incremental, changes. An end to the beating and abduction of peaceful activists would be a good place to start.

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