Promoting Democracy in Egypt


The New York Times

President Bush was right in exhorting Egypt, in his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, to be a country that could "show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." The helpful role of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, as a peace broker between Israelis and Palestinians should not earn him immunity from criticism of his self-perpetuating dictatorship. After nearly 24 years in power, he appears ready to add 6 more in a single-candidate referendum this fall, all the while grooming his son Gamal for an eventual Pharaonic succession. American taxpayers have bankrolled this regime to the tune of tens of billions of dollars over the years. It is about time that Washington woke up to the explosive powder keg that has been building up under Mr. Mubarak's despotic rule.
But for America to provide useful help to Egyptian democrats, it will have to tread nimbly. A few days ago, Mr. Mubarak's police arrested Ayman Nour, an opposition party leader who had been calling for fully democratic presidential elections. Mr. Nour was charged with forging signatures on the petitions that secured legal status for his party last fall. His real offense was acting like a real opposition party leader in a real democracy. The State Department responded with diplomatically phrased words of protest. Some Egyptian democrats called for stronger American pressure, but most worried that too close an embrace of Mr. Nour by the United States would make it easier for Mr. Mubarak to discredit him in Egyptian eyes.
Washington must go beyond raising its voice for select democrats at opportune moments. It must confront Mr. Mubarak and other regional autocrats with consistent calls for political freedom and open multiparty elections.
Not long ago America was automatically equated with freedom and democracy in the minds of most of the world's oppressed and colonized peoples. Over the years, that reputation has been squandered for shortsighted reasons. This would be a fine moment to begin earning it back