If Bush wants to show that he is still serious about promoting “the expansion of freedom,” he could begin by making an example of Egypt.
Mubarak is reputedly one of Washington’s closest friends in the Arab world, yet he has been among the most brazen in defying Bush’s demands for greater openness while force-feeding his 78 million subjects a steady diet of anti-American and anti-Semitic drivel. His vow to hold multiparty presidential elections produced a suspect ballot last fall in which he secured 88% of a feeble turnout. Afterward, he consigned his chief challenger, Ayman Nour, to five years’ hard labor on trumped-up charges of forging signatures to qualify for the ballot. The subsequent parliamentary election was even more dubious; ruling party goons used violence and fraud to keep the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group, from winning too many seats. Now Mubarak’s minions are roughing up peaceful demonstrators who support brave judges in their demand for greater independence and less electoral fraud.
Why, oh why, is this repugnant regime still getting $2 billion a year in American subsidies? Take the money away from Mubarak and give it to democracy-promotion programs across the Middle East. That would be a shot heard ’round the world. Failing such a signal, the dictators will become bolder and more brazen in defying what Bush once called “the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity.”
The State Department is worried that if Mubarak’s regime were to fall or be voted out, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely end up in power. The State Department is also right on that account. The Muslim Brotherhood has been systematically suppressed by Egyptian authorities, but remains the only opposition force capable of truly challenging Mubarak. Ayman Nour’s pro-democracy group is simply too weak to provide a real challenge at this point.
However, we have to ask, is Mubarak really all that much better than a government with the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter has thrived because Hosni Mubarak’s reign has destroyed civil society in Egypt. There is almost no real freedom of political expression in Egypt, and the only place in which one can speak freely is in a mosque. This suppression of personal freedom invariably creates a pressure that can either be vented through democratic action or explode into violence. Mubarak’s regime has been trying to tightly control dissent from both pro-democracy groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, and sooner or later that strategy is likely to fail – and it will fail catastrophically.
At some point, we have to understand that our interests are no longer met by having some strong man in charge. Mubarak is a figure that comes from the old days of realpolitik when were concerned with thwarting Soviet ambitions in the Middle East and not the gathering threat of Islamist terrorism. Back then, the threat that such groups posed was largely unknown and ignored.
However, despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has a less-than-savory history, we have to understand that the political oppression of the Middle East is one of the primary causes for the spread of international terrorism. When an Egyptian sees the autocracy, corruption, and tyranny of the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto of “Islam is the solution” sounds all the more prescient. The idea that a dictator like Mubarak is a true countermeasure towards Islamic extremism in Egypt is ultimately flawed – if anything, Mubarak’s regime is feeding Islamic extremism in Egypt.
President Bush should make it clear that further foreign aid distributions to Egypt will be made conditional on Mubarak’s willingness to lay the groundwork for a democratic and free state. That process should begin by a demand for the freedom of the Egyptian bloggers arrested this week during a pro-democracy protest. If Mubarak is unwilling to tolerate free and peaceful dissent among his people, then he is undeserving of the $2 billion per year in US foreign aid he receives. If he wishes to have his son Gemal inherit his presidency rather than laying the groundwork for a truly open and democratic election, then we should not support that choice.
Our national interests are now best met by ending the system of autocracy in the Middle East that fuels resentment and terrorism. President Bush has been right in noting this link time and time again in his speeches. It is time for him to put his money where his mouth is. If we truly believe that the solution to terrorism is the expansion of democracy and human rights, Egypt gives us an opportunity to illustrate our commitment to those values through action. We must put diplomatic pressure on the Mubarak regime until they begin to show a true commitment to civil society and democracy in Egypt.