Thursday, January 19, 2006


The Bush administration has finally lost patience with the antics of Mubarak's regime and halted talks over a free trade agreement with Egypt. From a WaPo editorial:
The Bush administration has taken a first step toward adjusting its relationship with Egypt following President Hosni Mubarak's flagrant violation of his promises to lead a transition to democracy. An Egyptian delegation that was to visit Washington this month to discuss a free-trade agreement has been disinvited, and the agreement itself was put on hold. Thanks to Mr. Mubarak's autocratic backsliding -- including his crude persecution and imprisonment of his leading liberal opponent, Ayman Nour -- Egypt will continue to lag behind Jordan, Morocco and other modernizing Arab states that enjoy tariff-free access to U.S. markets. For Egypt's business community and the reformist technocrats in its cabinet, the message should be clear: Egypt won't join the global economic mainstream unless it abandons its corrupt dictatorship.

For much of the past year Mr. Mubarak, 77, sought to convince the Bush administration that he could dismantle the autocracy he has presided over for nearly a quarter-century. He changed the constitution to allow a multi-candidate election for president; allowed more open debate in the press; and eased repression of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement. Though his own reelection in September was heavily manipulated, Mr. Mubarak promised to carry out a long list of reforms in his new term, including more freedom for the media, independence for judges, greater authority for parliament and reform of the emergency laws that give him dictatorial power.

Now Mr. Mubarak has squandered the tenuous credibility he had acquired in Washington. When the Muslim Brotherhood's candidates performed better than expected in the first rounds of parliamentary elections in November, his government used fraud and brutality to alter the final results; security forces opened fire on voters trying to cast ballots. Mr. Mubarak, meanwhile, set out to crush Mr. Nour, a moderate, secular politician who won 8 percent of the presidential vote on a platform of liberal democracy. Though far weaker than Islamic leaders, Mr. Nour, 41, poses a threat to Mr. Mubarak's 42-year-old son, Gamal, who also presents himself as a moderate reformist. Without Mr. Nour, the only choices in Egypt are the Mubarak family and the Muslim Brotherhood. That's why Mr. Nour was sentenced on Dec. 24 to five years of hard labor on bogus charges of forgery.
Nice to see American economic muscle being used in an ethical way, although I imagine some commentators might see things differently. Egyptian blogger The Sandmonkey agrees:
Smart move, since Egypt really needs that Free Trade agreement with the US. If we lived in a society that values common sense, we would use that piece of news to critisize the government for their actions, which will hinder for years to come the always ailing Egyptian economy. But since this is Egypt where the opposition is retarded, knowing the anti-American leftist Egyptian opposition, they will probably criticize the US for their decision and cite it as an example of how the US wants to influence and rule Egypt and will probably be happy that the FTA is no longer a possibility. After all, an agreement that brings prosperity to egypt through closer relationship with the US must be evil, and we wouldn't want to seem as if we support the evil US now would we?
Seeing evil in every piece of American foreign policy is not peculiar to the likes of Pilger then.

One person I doubt will be too upset about the dark hand of American influence is Ayman Nour. After the US threatened to withold $130 million in aid over the imprisonment of dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt's high court overturned his conviction and had him released.

Ibrahim has some interesting views on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. From an interview in March 2005:
Q: So should are we witnessing the beginnings of an authentic change in the region?

A: Well you have the Orientalists or some so-called Arabists, or area specialists who talk a lot about “Arab exceptionalism”: this idea that democracy cannot exist in the Arab world. Somehow the democratic changes that spread throughout the Third World starting in Portugal back in 1974, and then moved to Spain, and then to Greece, then to Latin America and back to East Asia and then to Eastern and Central Europe and what we social scientists called the third wave of democracy has not rooted itself in the Middle East. Of course, this third wave is now 31 years old and people wonder why has the wave not yet broken at the Arab shores? And some people have said well, it’s Arab exceptionalism: that there is something about our culture, or Islam, which somehow defies democracy. And of course a few of us who have been fighting for democracy in the region have taken issue with this kind of proposition. Arab exceptionalism? We are human beings like everybody else, and we can have democracy too.
Cutting back to the chase, in an article written the best part of a year ago in which he called for greater pressure to be placed on Mubarak's regime, Max Boot wrote:
Dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim credits U.S. pressure with helping to win his release from prison in 2003. And that involved a threat to withhold merely $130 million in supplemental aid. What might a threat to cut off $2 billion accomplish?
Well the US hasn't gone that far just yet, but restricting Egypt's access to US markets is still going to hurt. In the words of State Department spokesman Sean McCormack:
"We believe that these things are interlocked: democratic reforms, good governance going hand in hand with the expansion of economic opportunities and the expansion of trade."
The ball's now firmly in Mubarak's court.

The final word should go to Saad Eddin Ibrahim:
Q: One last question. What do you think America’s role in future should be in Middle East?

A: They should be concerned, but from a distance. If they move too close, then they will discredit us, the reformers and the human rights activists and those pushing for democracy. What we need for the United States to do now is to weaken their support for the tyrants: for the Mubaraks, for the Abdullahs. We can do battle with them on our own terms if they do not have the backing and support of the United States or other western powers.

Look at Egypt: they get $4 billion a year, $2 billion from the United States and another $2 billion from Europe and Japan. This creates a rentier state where there is no accountability for the state to its people since it is supported from abroad. And they can get away with more. Of course, there should not be sanctions which only end up hurt the people. But the United States should condition its financial support for different countries on a timetable for genuine political and social change. Enable democratic forces to have at least a stable footing against the dictators. I don’t have access to a newspaper, the maximum number of people I can get in my Center is maybe 100 per week. So we need more support.

But things are moving. Not as quickly as I would like, but gradually, and peacefully. And that’s important: we don’t want violent change—like what happened in Romania and Ceaucescu. The region has had enough bloodshed. So we want to fight our battles peacefully, and the United States and western powers can aid in this reform for greater freedom and political reform. And I think within five to ten years there will be major reform.
Here's hoping.


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