This week brought the odd juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events: the death of former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, and the visit to the United States of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. What links the two events is America's human rights policy--or lack of it.
This week, Kim died--and Hosni Mubarak was greeted in Washington with hosannas from the White House. He hadn't been here in 5 years, skipping his usual spring visits out of pique at George Bush's suggestions that reform and democracy were needed in Egypt. It is no accident that he skipped the spring visit this year too, seeking a time when Congress would be out of town and thereby eliminating any risk of untoward remarks about democracy from the Hill. Unless he read the Washington Post's powerful editorials about Egypt and Obama's human rights policy, Mubarak must have been a happy man. When he sat next to the president for their press conference in the Oval Office, Mubarak must have noted that Obama didn't pronounce the word "freedom," or "democracy," or even "reform." In fact it was Mubarak who did, saying that "I have entered into the election based on a platform that included reforms . . . " This is laughable, of course, for Mubarak has never held a free election and immediately after the last one jailed his sole opponent, Ayman Nour.
While the visit to Washington must have been immensely satisfying for Mubarak, it did not advance American interests in Egypt. As Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment wrote in the Washington Post, "something is missing from the meeting. That would be the interests of Egypt's 83 million citizens, whose collective hopes and aspirations have disappeared from U.S. considerations since President George W. Bush's freedom agenda flamed out years ago." Mubarak is 81 years old, so placing all our bets on him--even for so short a time as the three years left to President Obama--is unwise. Like the bureaucrats who kept Kim Dae Jung away, American officials who want to rely on a permanent military government in Egypt will eventually fail (and let's be clear: the Egyptian regime is led by a retired general, Hosni Mubarak, who has never held a free election, jails its opponents, and is kept in power by the secret police and the army).
Mubarak has ruled for 28 years and done next to nothing to prepare Egypt for democracy; indeed this very week his government once again refused to allow the formation of a moderate Islamic party that would draw votes away from the Muslim Brotherhood. He has in fact created a dangerous two-party system: the ruling "National Democratic Party" and the Muslim Brotherhood are the only organized political entities. Moderates have been crushed, imprisoned, exiled, and forbidden to organize. This is sowing the wind and when Mubarak is gone the reaping may begin. So it was tragic to see all of this swept under the Oval Office rug, as we repeat the errors of the past. The story of Kim Dae Jung should have reminded the White House that handshakes and smiles for dictators are a bad policy for the United States, while support for democracy and human rights will ultimately vindicate our interests as well as our principles. The happier Mubarak was about his visit, the less reason we have to be about this week in Washington.
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration.