Bush must keep in check Egypt’s desperate despot

Bush must keep in check Egypt’s desperate despot
U.S. president cannot allow Mubarak to derail democracy, says Haroon Siddiqui

First in Turkey and then in Iraq, Islamists swept the elections. In Lebanon, Hezbollah won seats in areas where it’s active. Now in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has made historic gains, despite official intimidation, fraud, thuggery and the killing of 11 and jailing of 1,500 of its supporters.

Will Hamas be the next to do well, in next month’s election, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank? Quite likely.

Islamist electoral gains either evince horror (“The mullahs are coming,” cried a pro-government Cairo newspaper, as if on cue), or they bring relief that democracy is, at last, being allowed to take root — thanks, in part, to George W. Bush.

The Iraqi election back in January and the one next week are the direct result of the American occupation, democracy having become the retroactive justification for the illegal invasion.

Credit for the multi-party election in Egypt also goes to Bush, since he pressured the reluctant Hosni Mubarak into it.

In both instances, as also in Lebanon, Bush has inadvertently helped bring victory to parties opposed to the U.S.

Either he is naïve, as his critics on the right will say, or he is enlightened, as few will concede. Or he is just mired in the unintended consequences of opportunistic pronouncements.

He has certainly been consistent. He backed democracy in Georgia and Ukraine and is assisting pro-democracy NGOs in the former Soviet Muslim Central Asian republics — much to the chagrin of Vladimir Putin.

In Turkey, where Bush had little to do with the Justice party’s rise to power, he deserves credit for being graceful about its refusal to join his Iraq war and also for lobbying for Turkish entry into the European Union.

What does all this mean, especially the Islamist resurgence?

There is a clear pattern: Moderates or those who are learning to moderate their voices, and even their policies, are winning. This was also the case in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere.

The Brotherhood’s success in increasing its representation in parliament six-fold is far bigger than the raw numbers suggest.

It contested only 150 of the 454 seats, not wanting to provoke the Mubarak regime, which can be vicious, as it increasingly proved to be with each of the three rounds of voting. Without the official goon tactics, the Brotherhood would have won more than the 90 seats it did.

Even more significantly, it wiped out the secularists to emerge as the main opposition.

Mubarak may like it that way. He will portray himself as the last line of defence against the Islamist hordes taking over.

Bush should stay the course, as enunciated by Condoleezza Rice in Cairo in June: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Egypt has not met the standards Washington set for free and fair elections, either in this parliamentary round or in the September presidential election, in which Mubarak won his fifth six-year term.

He had rigged the rules to ensure no Brotherhood challenger. His secular opponent, Ayman Nour, was jailed on a trumped-up charge of forgery, released under U.S. pressure but re-arrested. Nour has mysteriously lost even his parliamentary seat. All this is meant to pre-empt his future challenge against Mubarak’s son Gamal, the presumptive heir.

But Bush should keep up the pressure. Egypt, after Israel, is America’s second largest aid recipient, at $1.8 billion a year.

The Egyptian parliament, a rubberstamping body, must be empowered to oversee budgets and the executive branch. The sweeping state of emergency, in effect for 24 years, has to go. The official media must be set free.

The Brotherhood, banned in the 1950s, has renounced violence and proven better at delivering social services than the government. It represents not only the poor but also the professional class. It needs to prove that it can make the transition from preaching to politics.

The third United Nations Arab Human Development report has warned of civil war unless fundamental reforms are undertaken swiftly in the region.

Bush cannot allow a despot, a subsidized one at that, to derail democracy in Egypt, the largest Arab nation.

Haroon Siddiqui, the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday and Sunday. [email protected]