The Sands Are Shifting Under Egypt's Mubarak

Stanley Reed

Thousands of people filled the streets of Beirut on Feb. 21 to protest Syria's occupation of Lebanon and the recent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. On the same day, a few hundred protesters gathered in Cairo to call for an end to the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for 24 years.

The rising tensions arrive at a time when the Bush Administration's Middle East activism is moving into a tricky phase. In the wake of Iraq's election, the U.S. is determined to push for more democracy in the region. Hariri's assassination provides an opportunity for the U.S. to ratchet up the pressure on Syria to give up control of Lebanon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to wind up with a choice of yielding to the U.S. or facing tough sanctions. "Bashar is about to be taught a life lesson," says a Western diplomat.

Touchy Situation

Sparring with the likes of the recalcitrant Syrians entails only modest risks for the U.S. Nudging Egypt, long an American ally, along the road to greater democracy is tougher. If the U.S. doesn't call attention to the lack of freedom in Egypt, it will look hypocritical. Yet just about any U.S. effort to influence Egypt's political direction will spark charges of meddling from old guard elements around Mubarak. If the Bush Administration is too blunt, it may lose Egypt's support on key diplomatic goals.

Recent events have underscored the touchiness of the situation. Mubarak drew unwelcome notice from Washington when he had Ayman Nour, leader of a new political party called Al-Ghad, or Tomorrow, jailed on Jan. 28. The government says the party filed forged signatures when it officially registered. But observers suspect that Mubarak's advisers feared the youthful Nour could become a U.S.-backed candidate to replace the 76-year-old President.

Such fears increased when Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was peppered with questions about Nour on a recent U.S. visit. Particularly galling to the Egyptians was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comment that she had raised "our very strong concerns" about the Nour case. The Egyptians then showed their anger by postponing a G-8 meeting on Arab reform that was scheduled for March in Cairo.

These squabbles are happening against the backdrop of a region ripe for change. People are fed up with regimes that are repressive and have failed to deliver prosperity. In Cairo, protests are being organized by a movement called Kefaya, or Enough, to demand that Mubarak not run for a new six-year term. Protesters often carry signs saying "no to inheritance" -- a reference to the possibility that Mubarak's son, Gamal, could succeed him. "For the first time, people are talking about free and fair elections," says Mona Makram Ebeid, secretary general of the Tomorrow party.

Mubarak has long summoned the specter of a fundamentalist takeover in the Arab world's most populous state to justify his extended stay in power. Critics, however, want the constitution rewritten so that the President is directly elected, rather than nominated by Parliament and approved by referendum, as is now the case. Mubarak will probably run anyway -- and be selected. But parliamentary elections will follow, and they are likely to be hotly contested. Like the Lebanese, Egyptians can smell the end of an era.