President Obama has been heavily criticized for not supporting democracy activists abroad, making it his priority instead to “engage” with dictatorial regimes. In doing so, he has puzzled many activists who expected him to be at least as supportive, if not more so, than George W. Bush.

One of these activists is Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who is among Egypt’s most prominent dissidents. Ibrahim writes in today’s Washington Post that many people in the Middle East miss Bush. He cites 11 contested, if imperfect, elections in the Middle East between 2005 and 2006 as a result of Bush’s “persistent rhetoric and efforts.” While Ibrahim rightly notes that Bush abandoned the “Freedom Agenda” in his second term, Middle Easterners still remember it warmly, and hope U.S. policy will revert to it.

By contrast, the high expectations President Obama helped encourage with his Cairo speech last year have been dashed. “Egyptians are not just disappointed but stunned by what appears to be outright promotion of autocracy in their country,” Ibrahim writes.

Ibrahim has hard-won credibility. He went to jail three times for his democracy activism and suffered permanent damage to his health from torture. American policymakers frequently complain that Washington has little leverage when it comes to influencing democratic change. According to Ibrahim, they shouldn’t. At the Foreign Policy Initiative’s 2009 Forum, he spoke about the importance of U.S. support for political prisoners in deeply personal terms. While in jail in Cairo, the Bush administration suspended $150 million in aid. His fellow inmates read about it and said, “you are worth $150 million? And all of a sudden my stocks in prison jump.” Nor does being soft on Mubarak advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This, says Ibrahim, is a myth.

Ibrahim was unimpressed by the Obama administration’s reaction to Egypt’s extension, last month, of its “emergency law” which permits indefinite detention without charge of anyone, including activists and journalists. Ibrahim expressed no opinion about the visit this month of Vice President Joseph Biden to see Hosni Mubarak at Sharm el-Sheik. After the visit, Egypt endorsed several recommendations for human rights improvements under a U.N. rights review process. This is probably little more than a sop to Mr. Biden. It remains to be seen if the Obama administration is going to engage more fully in the elections process – parliamentary elections are scheduled for November, and the presidential poll for 2011 – by pressing Mubarak to allow, for example, domestic and international poll monitors to prevent fraud.

Nor is it clear that Congress, often a catalyst for strong U.S. policies on democracy and human rights, will do anything. There, a hearing could usefully highlight issues such as cuts in U.S. aid for democracy programming in Egypt and the logistics of bringing about credible election monitoring. Another valuable congressional contribution would be a resolution in support of free, fair, and transparent elections.

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