'Enough' in Egypt

Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page A16

JUST TWO DAYS after the Palestinian presidential election, in which multiple candidates freely competed for votes, an Egyptian official delivered a contrasting piece of news: The ruling party, he said, intended to nominate President Hosni Mubarak to run unopposed this fall for a sixth consecutive term. If confirmed, that would mean the perpetuation of the dictatorship that has ruled Egypt for more than 50 years, nearly half of them under Mr. Mubarak, who is now 76. Though they can hardly be surprised, Egyptians can only be frustrated by Mr. Mubarak's refusal to liberalize a political system that has brought them decades of economic stagnation and rampant corruption while nourishing Islamic extremists, including many of the leaders of al Qaeda.

Mr. Mubarak's renomination would be a serious blow to the Bush administration's project for promoting democratic change in the Middle East -- and would again raise the question of whether President Bush intends to connect U.S. policy with his rhetoric. It has been more than a year since Mr. Bush, in his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, acknowledged that the United States had been wrong for "excusing and accommodating" Arab dictators in exchange for their cooperation with American foreign policy. Mr. Mubarak has been foremost among those rulers, receiving more than $50 billion in U.S. aid over the years even as he ruthlessly suppressed Egyptian civil society and democratic movements and encouraged anti-Israeli and anti-American incitement in his state-controlled media. "Egypt," Mr. Bush said in that speech, "now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."

Mr. Mubarak has done the opposite: He has emerged as the most outspoken and uncompromising opponent of Mr. Bush's call for Arab liberalization. But he has also shrewdly offered Mr. Bush an extension of the old bargain. In recent weeks, Mr. Mubarak has warmed his relations with Israel's Ariel Sharon, encouraged Palestinian militants to declare a cease-fire and supported Sunni participation in Iraq's upcoming elections. Egypt also apparently continues its clandestine cooperation on terrorism with the Central Intelligence Agency -- cooperation that reportedly involves the "rendition" of CIA detainees to Egypt so as to circumvent U.S. anti-torture laws.

The dictator's gambit appears to be working. For all his rhetoric, Mr. Bush shows no sign of ending U.S. excuses and accommodations for Egypt. While insisting that Palestinians establish a democracy before any peace settlement with Israel -- a stance that happens to advance Mr. Sharon's aim of indefinitely postponing Palestinian statehood -- Mr. Bush has given no indication that he objects to another of the fraudulent referendums with which Mr. Mubarak has ratified his rule. Hoping that Mr. Bush is serious, Egyptian opposition movements have formed a coalition to call for fundamental reforms: the lifting of emergency laws that restrict political activity, a multi-candidate election for president and constitutional changes to limit the next president's power. Three brave dissidents have announced their own candidacies for president. Last month an unprecedented anti-Mubarak demonstration took place in Cairo. Protesters silently held up signs saying "Enough." Does Mr. Bush not agree?