Why is the U.S. afraid of Egypt?

Saturday, December 4, 2010; 6:21 PM

EGYPTIAN AND international observers were expecting last weekend's parliamentary elections to be afflicted with fraud and government-sponsored violence. As it turned out, they were mildly surprised - by just how blatant and pervasive the rigging was. The regime's thugs refused to let some voters enter the polls; the government drove away even those observers and candidate representatives who held official accreditation. It stuffed ballot boxes so universally that not a single candidate of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood won in the first round. By way of contrast, candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood won about 20 percent of the seats in the 2005 parliamentary vote, even though it, too, was marked by fraud and violence.

The verdict on the election by Egyptian and international groups was unanimous: It was a clear step away from democracy or even limited political reform, and an invitation to radicalization by the growing opposition. By retrenching in autocracy, 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak is endangering the stability of Egypt - even as his poor health casts doubt on how long he can remain in office.

Given those facts, Egyptians and concerned Americans eagerly waited on Monday to learn the reaction of the Obama administration to the electoral travesty. And waited. The State Department failed to produce a statement until 7:20 p.m.; the White House was silent until Tuesday. What finally emerged were two timid and painstakingly balanced comments, attributed not to President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, or even to their principal spokesmen, but to the spokesman of the National Security Council and "the office of the spokesman" at State.

Egypt's elections, they said, are "worrying"; they "give cause for concern." Officials were "dismayed" by "reports of election day interference and intimidation by security forces." But "the United States has a long-standing partnership" with the government of Egypt. When State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked on Tuesday what would be the administration's "next step," he said only that "we will continue to raise our concerns where appropriate." Cairo's response was far more direct: it bluntly dismissed "unacceptable meddling in Egyptian internal affairs."

Other countries watching this exchange will marvel at Washington's weakness. A nominal U.S. ally that receives $1.5 billion in annual aid makes a mockery of democratic rights -- and is answered with mild and low-level expressions of regret and promises to do nothing other than "raise concerns where appropriate." The Obama administration appears to be thoroughly intimidated by Hosni Mubarak - when what it ought to be worried about is who or what will succeed him.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company