Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to Crawford today highlights the difficulties and opportunities facing President Bush’s commitment to promote democracy in the Middle East. While the administration focuses on, of course, Iraq, Egypt’s size and cultural influence make it the dominant Arab country. Hence, as Bush has said, Egypt “should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.” In response, Mubarak insists that he is already reforming, is America’s most important friend in the Arab world, and is the moderating voice in Arab summits, especially in dealing with Israel and the Palestinians. When Tunisia abruptly cancelled the March 29 Arab League meeting, after some participants objected to calls for reform because it might look like they were acceding to the U.S., Egypt rapidly hosted a series of smaller meetings. Yet these meetings seemed arranged not to push a reform agenda, but to appear as if they were not opposing one. Mubarak presides over a stagnant economy, a suffocated society, and a repressive state that incubates the pathological version of Islam that has become our major enemy (of the twelve leading al Qaeda members still at large, five are Egyptian, including Zawahiri, its reputed mastermind). When America pushes for changes, Mubarak responds that reforms must respect each country’s particular cultural and religious characteristics to avoid “instability or the overtaking of the reform process by extremists.” This anodyne statement seems to mean “push us too hard, and you’ll end up dealing with our replacement, the Muslim Brotherhood,” which originated in Egypt and is the promoter and ideological guide of Islamic extremists throughout the world. The danger of the Brotherhood or its surrogates coming to power, pushing further repression at home and reaction abroad, is real. Though nominally illegal, it has built an extensive network throughout Egypt (and the rest of the Arab world), especially in educational and professional associations. It may be the most popular organization in the country. But, while the danger is real, it is Egypt’s own policies that have made it so, since every other alternative has had the life squeezed out of it. When the sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt’s most prominent human-rights proponent, questioned Egypt’s elections, the situation of its Coptic Christian minority, and the possible grooming of Mubarak’s son as president, he was rewarded by three years of trials and incarceration. Eventually, he was released, but the signal had been sent: Push the boundaries of criticism and prison awaits.
When the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a coalition of Egypt’s five major opposition parties and ten civil-society groups, has tried to present Mubarak with a petition and plan for gradual political reform, they have been continually rebuffed. The closest they came was in February this year when they were allowed to give the petition to the guards outside the palace.
Perhaps as a sop to Islamist sentiment, the government has done little to protect Egypt’s ancient Christian community, by far the largest religious minority in the Middle East, and sometimes attacks them itself. No one was punished for the massacre of 21 Copts in the village of El-Kosheh four years ago. On March 23, the Coptic pope, Shenouda III, publicly condemned the escalating forced conversion of Christian girls, a major step since it is arguably illegal for him to criticize the government and he has previously been under house arrest for three years for doing so. In November 2003, security officials arrested 21 converts to Christianity, tortured several of them, and one died in custody.
Meanwhile the Egyptian government controls all funds from overseas, including from the U.S. government and churches, that might help strengthen civil society (something criticized in the March 2004 Alexandria Declaration issued by Arab civil-society groups). Yet it has received $59 billion in U.S. aid, and currently receives two billion a year.
The Egyptian government quashes democratic alternatives, all but guaranteeing that, since they retain a network of mosques, the opposition will be Islamist, and then it argues that it cannot open up since the only alternative would be Islamist. It is somewhat like the man who killed his parents and asked for sympathy because he was an orphan.
With events in Iraq alone, President Bush already has much to talk about with Mubarak. But, if Bush misses this opportunity to push for genuine freedom in the most populous Arab country — especially its poisonous conspiracy-minded and anti-Semitic media — it will continue to fester with resentment against its own government and with America, spawn Islamist radicalism, and undercut any hopes for wider change in the Middle East.