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Mr. Mubarak vs. Mr. Obama

Friday, November 26, 2010; 9:21 PM

EGYPT'S PARLIAMENTARY election is on Sunday, but already the principal result is known: a step away from political liberalization and genuine democracy. In the weeks before the vote, more than 1,000 political activists have been rounded up by security forces, and many have been abused. Opposition media commentators have been forced off the air, television channels closed and restrictions placed on text messaging. Meanwhile, the government has issued strident statements rejecting the Obama administration's calls for international observers and severely limited the access of domestic monitoring groups.

None of this is particularly surprising, given the apparent determination of 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak to preserve his autocracy through next year's presidential election and pave the way for his son Gamal to succeed him. But it is of great importance to the United States and its interests in the Middle East. The attempted perpetuation of a Mubarak dynasty risks leaving a key U.S. ally with an illegitimate government that would be vulnerable to nationalist or Islamist opponents. Mr. Mubarak's rude dismissal of what have been gentle U.S. calls for change is making the Obama administration look weak in a region that can be quick to act on such perceptions.

That's why what will matter most is not the results of the vote but how President Obama responds to them. The president and his secretary of state have brought up democracy and human rights in private conversations with Egyptian leaders but shied away from them in public. They have failed to make any connection between Mr. Mubarak's domestic repression and the more than $1 billion in U.S. aid Egypt receives every year, much of it directed to the military. They have not supported efforts in Congress to pass legislation or even nonbinding resolutions linking bilateral relations to political reform.

This week would be an ideal moment to begin changing those policies. Mr. Obama should let Egyptians - and Arabs around the Middle East - know what he thinks about an election in which peaceful opponents are banned or beaten, votes are stolen and observers excluded.

He should end the State Department's practice of allowing Egypt to exercise a veto over which civil society groups receive U.S. aid, and he should encourage Congress to link military funds to human rights, as it has for several democracies that are U.S. allies. Most of all, Mr. Obama should make it clear that he will not be dismissed or pushed around by Arab strongmen. If Mr. Mubarak gets away with it, others will be quick to follow his example.

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