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Wrongly choosing Egypt's generals over the democrats

Monday, February 7, 2011; 8:09 PM

THE OBAMA administration's latest flip on Egypt - it now publicly backs "the transition process announced by the Egyptian government" - is driven by fear of the dangers that could come with a victory by the pro-democracy movement headquartered in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "There are forces at work in any society . . . that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Saturday. Most likely she was referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement that many in Washington worry could hijack an uprising currently led by secular liberals.

Egypt's Islamic threat cannot be discounted. But the administration has focused on the wrong problem - and, as a result, has taken the wrong side. The biggest threat to the stated U.S. objective of a "real democracy" in Egypt is not an extreme opposition but the very regime the administration is backing - which is attempting to limit change and perpetuate its hold on power beyond President Hosni Mubarak's announced retirement in September.

Mr. Mubarak leads not a personal dictatorship but an autocracy rooted in the Egyptian military, which seized power in a 1952 coup and has held it ever since. The vice president he appointed last week, Omar Suleiman, is a general who heads the military's intelligence service. Mr. Suleiman says he is leading a reform process that will respond to the popular uprising - an initiative Ms. Clinton endorsed. But Mr. Suleiman's statements in recent days as well as his first talks with the opposition strongly indicate that he does not intend to allow the reforms necessary for a genuine democracy.

The meetings Mr. Suleiman has conducted so far have excluded many of the most important opposition leaders. Instead the general has talked mostly with marginal, officially approved parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime's strategy for decades has been to portray these as the only alternatives, while crushing centrist, secular movements like the organizers of the Tahrir Square protests. Mr. Suleiman said in an interview with ABC television Sunday that Mohammed ElBaradei, the former U.N. official accepted as a representative by many of the protesters, "is not one of the opposition."

The regime also is attempting to strictly limit the reforms it will undertake before September's scheduled election. Mr. Suleiman told ABC that "we can do what President Mubarak [has] said, and we cannot do more." Mr. Mubarak spoke last week of amending two articles of the constitution covering presidential term limits and how candidates can qualify. But far greater reforms are needed, including an independent election-monitoring system, the opening up of state-controlled media, the removal of restrictions on creating political parties and the lifting of an emergency law that prevents public gatherings. A government statement Sunday said the emergency law would be changed when "conditions allow." That has been the regime's position for the past 29 years.

Mr. Suleiman was asked if he believed in democracy. "For sure," he answered. But "you will do that . . . when the people here will have the culture of democracy." For now, he said, the demand for democracy "comes from abroad." Does this sound like someone who intends to oversee a free and fair election seven months from now?

The Obama administration has said it wants a free election, and it has called on Mr. Suleiman to include all opposition movements in his talks and to begin taking specific steps to open the political system. But the measures the regime has taken, such as announcing the prosecution of a pro-business member of Mr. Mubarak's cabinet and granting a 15 percent pay increase to state employees, are intended to deflect rather than respond to the demand for change. If the regime succeeds in this strategy, Egyptian supporters of democracy will be marginalized and embittered. And given the administration's policy, they probably will blame the United States.

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