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U.S. eases push for Egypt reforms
Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Cairo to protest the arrest of an Egyptian opposition leader, Ayman Nour. A few months later, she gave a speech at the American University of Cairo in which she called on Egypt to "put its faith in its own people" and enact democratic reforms. When Rice visited here earlier this mont
Thursday, October 19,2006 00:00
by Barbara Slavin, USA TODAY
Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Cairo to protest the arrest of an Egyptian opposition leader, Ayman Nour.

A few months later, she gave a speech at the American University of Cairo in which she called on Egypt to "put its faith in its own people" and enact democratic reforms.

When Rice visited here earlier this month during a tour of the Middle East, not much had changed: Nour was back in jail, along with thousands of other political prisoners; and political reforms seemed to be on hold.

Critics, including two Egyptian political analysts, say Egypt has retreated on the democracy front since it permitted several candidates to run for president last year. Last week, the government accused Talaat Sadat, a member of parliament and nephew of slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, of defaming the Egyptian military by alleging that officers were involved in his uncle’s 1981 assassination. Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman, said the Bush administration "is keeping an eye on the case and will see how things progress."

"The mood here is very despondent," said Hani Shukrallah of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

The most populous nation in the Arab world, with a history that goes back thousands of years, Egypt has been a political and cultural trendsetter in the region. In the 1950s, a military coup led by army Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew a British-backed monarchy and established an authoritarian government. Similar coups followed in Iraq and Syria. When Nasser died, he was succeeded by his vice president, Anwar Sadat.

The current president, Hosni Mubarak, was Sadat’s vice president and took power in 1981 when Sadat was assassinated by Muslim extremists opposed to Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Shukrallah said many Egyptians believe Mubarak, 78, elected to a fifth six-year term last year, will orchestrate his succession within the next few years. His preferred replacement: his son, Gamal, 42.

Asked about the succession, Rice said it was "not something that the U.S. should, can or will have an opinion" about.

Shukrallah said U.S. reluctance to challenge the younger Mubarak reflects the U.S. need for Egyptian cooperation to try to restart the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and deal with the rising challenge from Iran.

"There is a sense that the inheritance of power will happen, and nothing is happening in terms of political reform," he said.

Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said Gamal Mubarak took a leading role in a recent convention of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party.

The younger Mubarak gave a major speech in which he said Egypt would develop nuclear power. Hamzawy said this was an attempt to attract popular support. "There is lots of speculation that President Mubarak will resign in 2008," he said.

The Bush administration, like its predecessors — Republican and Democratic — has supported Egypt with an annual $2 billion in aid since Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, President Bush began calling for democratic reforms in Egypt and the wider Middle East, arguing that U.S. support for authoritarian governments helped foster the rage and frustration that produced al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Rice says that there has been no change in policy. She spoke in Cairo about "the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, which means the right to choose those who will govern you, the right to worship as you please, the right to educate your girls and your boys, the right to be free from the arbitrary power of the state."

Recent events in the Middle East, however, have complicated U.S. efforts to push democracy here. The United States does not want to annoy allied governments at a time when the region is increasingly unstable, says Rashid Khalidi, director of Middle East studies at Columbia University.

Iraq is increasingly chaotic and violent despite having several successful elections. Iran is growing in influence, partly because of its support for Shiite militias in Iraq and its backing of Hezbollah, which battled Israel last summer in Lebanon. Elections have strengthened the militant Hamas movement in the Palestinian territories and the Muslim Brotherhood, a veteran fundamentalist group, in Egypt. The United States refuses to deal with either group, branding them as terrorists.

Khalidi says the U.S. government has quietly "shelved its democracy-promotion efforts" because it now understands that "democracy would put in power policies and groups opposed to almost everything the administration stands for."

The Muslim Brotherhood, although outlawed, won 88 of 444 seats in parliamentary elections earlier this year by running independent candidates — the strongest showing ever by an Egyptian opposition group. Abdel Moneim Abul Fottouh, a member of the brotherhood’s 15-member leadership council, said the party would have done even better had the government allowed truly free elections. More than 90 members of the organization remain in jail of thousands arrested during the elections, he said, even though the group renounced violence more than a decade ago.

Secular parties in Egypt are weaker. Nour was one of a handful of opposition candidates allowed to run against Mubarak last year. He was jailed after the elections. Founder of a party called "Tomorrow," Nour was sentenced to five years in prison on charges he forged petition signatures to register the party.

Rice said the Bush administration has not given up on democratic reforms but that each country has to move at its own pace. "The process of democracy has its ups and its downs," she said. "It remains a part of our agenda. Ultimately we believe that a democratic Middle East is going to be a more peaceful Middle East."

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