Op-Ed: Do we support democracy in Egypt? Hardly

Robert Kagan
The Washington Post

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a big speech in Cairo in June in which she set down some criteria by which to judge the fairness and openness of the upcoming elections in Egypt.

The speech seemed to augur a tough approach by the administration, a determination to press hard for real reforms in the Egyptian political system. That would be in keeping with President George W. Bush's repeated declaration of his support for democracy worldwide, and especially in the Middle East.

Rice's speech gave reasons for hoping that something really had changed and that it was not all rhetoric. After all, it would have been easy enough for her to make some vague call for democracy and leave it at that. But, surprisingly, she got down to specifics. President Hosni Mubarak had "unlocked the door for change," she said, but now he had to put his faith in his own people and give Egyptians "the freedom to choose." Egypt's two sets of elections - the presidential contest Wednesday and the parliamentary elections in October and November - "must meet objective standards that define every free election."

She went on to spell out some of those standards. Opposition groups "must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation. And international election monitors and observers must have unrestricted access to do their jobs."

Most important, Rice took aim at the emergency laws under which Mubarak has ruled since 1981 and which he has used to harass, lock up and otherwise silence all opponents. "The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees - and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice."

Perhaps Rice did not mean that the day must come in time for the approaching elections.

For, as it happens, Mubarak has not suspended the emergency decrees. The "rule of law," therefore, will not be in place as Egyptian opposition figures attempt to compete in an electoral system that remains entirely stacked against them. As for Rice's explicit demand for election monitors and observers, Mubarak has rejected that, too.

So do Egypt's citizens really have what Rice called "the freedom to choose" their rulers in this election? By her own "objective standards," the answer is no. Meanwhile, Mubarak has permitted a mere three-week campaign, which began Aug. 17 and ends Sunday.

How to explain U.S. policy these past few months? Of course, it's always easier to give strong speeches than to implement them. Mubarak is a tough customer, maybe too tough for his American counterparts. But it's not as if the United States lacks leverage - to the tune of more than a billion dollars a year in aid. If the administration wasn't prepared to play hardball with the Egyptian dictator, why lay down specific conditions for him to flout?

It may be that, despite all, Egyptians will come out to vote and give Mubarak a scare. More likely, he will win in a walk, just as he always has.

Perhaps there is U.S. concern that too much pressure on Mubarak might produce a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular Egyptian opposition party that has been outlawed by the government. That's a risk, of course. But if the Bush administration isn't willing to let Islamists, even radical Islamists, win votes in a fair election, then Bush officials should stop talking so much about democracy and go back to supporting the old dictatorships. It was precisely that kind of logic - that friendly dictators are preferable to potentially radical alternatives - that helped produce so much radicalism during the Cold War and, more recently, a healthy movement of Middle East terrorists. Bush supposedly has rejected that kind of logic. But if the decisive moment in Egypt passes without change, many will ask what, exactly, is new about the administration's approach. Arab peoples watching carefully to see whether Bush is serious about his commitment to democracy will have reason to doubt that he is.

Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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