In a café here a few weeks ago, an Egyptian intellectual began our conversation by explaining how strongly he opposed the use of American power to bring about political change abroad. Just half a cup of coffee later, he told me that “this is the moment” for the United States to put pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to undertake democratic reforms.
Other Egyptians I met with—activists, small businessmen, journalists, academics—were conflicted as well, not about whether Washington should use its influence to push Mubarak toward a more democratic system but whether it would. They see the United States as trapped by its reliance on Mubarak, who uses the threat of Islamic radicalism and the promise of assistance in the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” to deflect pressure on his regime to improve its record on democracy and human rights.
Virtually no one expected President Obama to push Mubarak, whose fifth presidential term ends in 2011, to allow independent monitoring of elections, end the state of emergency, and remove barriers to independent candidacies. The impact of Obama’s Cairo speech last June, making the case for democracy in Islamic countries, had “evaporated” according to an independent newspaper editor once jailed for commenting on Mubarak’s health. Nevertheless, nearly everyone I’ve met hopes, some desperately, for action by Washington. “Even people who hate the United States want it to do something,” a political party activist based outside Cairo told me.
Doing something for democracy in Egypt would require a policy reversal in Washington. U.S. pressure in 2005 contributed to some improvements, including the first multicandidate presidential election. Even so, the election was a travesty, and since the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration, there has been retreat—including a cut in funding for democracy programs and acquiescence to an Egyptian veto over which groups may receive U.S. funds. An Egyptian proposal for a U.S.-funded “endowment” for development projects with little or no emphasis on political reform or congressional oversight has quietly gained ground. The current American ambassador has a reputation for being weak on democracy and human rights.
The debate over whether to subordinate democracy to Middle East peace has been around as long as Mubarak—nearly 30 years—which, as many Egyptian democracy activists point out, shows how unsuccessful Mubarak has been at delivering it. In fact, the guiding principle of U.S. policy is “stability” both inside Egypt and in the region. Mubarak’s stability, however, contains the seeds of its own destruction—economic stagnation, corruption, and repression. Regardless of whether the stability Washington clings to is real, it is not sustainable. Mubarak, 82, has been ill, has no vice president, and has not designated a successor. Since surgery in Germany in March, he has made few public appearances. The prospect of his son, Gamal, taking over is deeply unpopular and has helped to stoke the opposition. In the meantime, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, made a dramatic return to Egypt, attracting a broad—some say unworkably broad—coalition of supporters and enthusiasm from a normally politically-enervated population. Observers detect signs of Mubarak’s waning influence in the region already, such as in the ongoing negotiations with neighboring countries over the distribution of Nile river water.
Cairo is growing tense. So far, Mubarak shows no sign of ceding ground. On May 11, he renewed the state of emergency, in place since Sadat’s assassination in 1981, despite previously promising that it would be ended. Many people fear a crackdown and the alienation of those newly interested in politics. A few weeks ago, a ruling party member of parliament provoked an uproar by saying it would be justifiable to shoot demonstrators in the street.
As for Egyptian hopes for U.S. action, American officials rarely set about to bring down authoritarian allies. The recent case of Kyrgyzstan illustrates how reluctant the United States can be to accept, let alone accelerate, the departure of a strongman on whom it relies: Kurmanbek Bakiyev used Washington’s desire to maintain an airbase to resist human rights entreaties.
America’s acquiescence does not go unnoticed. “You came to us to help us build democracy,” the leader of the post-Bakiyev government has said, “and then just one day, you put your hands over your mouth just to have a base.”
Egyptians regard the United States with a mixture of resentment, confusion, and hope. They are surprised at American credulousness about Mubarak. Most people I spoke to believe that the trade-off Mubarak peddles, between authoritarian control and Islamist rule, is bogus. They think that the threat of Islamist radicals’ winning a free election is overstated, and that granting Egyptians political rights would neutralize the threat further. They ask what the Egyptian government is doing to forestall the appeal of such movements and why the United States is so hypocritical about democracy in Egypt.
In a bare party headquarters a few hours outside Cairo, I found myself trying to explain the way America acts to a polite but frustrated group of mainly small businessmen. I told them that in the past, Washington has sometimes used its influence to help bring about democratic transitions, withdrawing its support from dictators like Chun Doo Hwan in South Korea and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Later I realized that Churchill had said it better: Washington always does the right thing, after it’s exhausted all the alternatives.
Ellen Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.