Clinton's silence on Egyptian democracy

Thursday, November 11, 2010; 8:19 PM

SENIOR OBAMA administration officials profess to share congressional concerns about recent political developments in Egypt. With a parliamentary election due Nov. 28, 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak has launched a crackdown against his opposition and independent media; he also has rejected a direct appeal from President Obama to allow international observers at the polls. So when Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit visited the State Department on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton might have been expected to press him about the repression - and also to make clear to Egyptians where the United States stands.

After the meeting, Ms. Clinton duly appeared with Mr. Aboul Gheit in the State Department's treaty room and offered a summary. She said that they had discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and she commended "the personal commitment of President Mubarak"; she said that they talked about the upcoming referendum in Sudan and the political situation in Lebanon. Said Ms. Clinton: "We also discussed our shared hope that Iraqis will soon form an inclusive government that reflects the interests and the needs of the entire Iraqi population and shares power fairly and legitimately."

About the Egyptian government - which, to say the least, does not "share power fairly and legitimately" - Ms. Clinton said nothing; not one word. To judge from her statement, the subject never came up. "You covered everything," Mr. Aboul Gheit proclaimed after she finished.

The message for Egyptians - quickly reinforced by Egyptian officials and media - was that the Obama administration either supports Mr. Mubarak's autocracy or doesn't much care one way or the other. "Such dialogue shows that it is fundamental for both countries to focus on regional issues," the Al-Ahram newspaper quoted "a senior Egyptian diplomat" as saying, "albeit some U.S. circles are currently launching unbalanced political campaigns against the Egyptian government in the American media."

When we asked State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley about Ms. Clinton's silence, he said: "In Wednesday's meetings we addressed domestic issues with Egyptian officials directly and forcefully. There was no misunderstanding. There was a meaningful and spirited discussion. They understand fully the importance we attach to human rights and civil society in Egypt."

That's good to hear. But chances are that the private words were lost on Mr. Aboul Gheit, 68, a faithful retainer of Mr. Mubarak. Egypt's upcoming election will not be free or fair no matter the U.S. role. But what the Obama administration says about it, in public, means a lot to the hundreds of thousands of brave Egyptians who have joined pro-democracy movements - and to those who quietly wait for the political transition that everyone in Cairo knows will come when the ailing president steps down or dies. Ms. Clinton had an opportunity to send a vital message; wrongly, she chose not to.

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