Condi vs. Hosni

Now that President Bush has admitted serious setbacks in Iraq, Condi Rice’s mission to the Middle East includes some begging for help from America’s Arab allies, especially Mubarak of Egypt and Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This is the same Rice who was in Cairo delivering her landmark lecture on Arab democracy and America’s determination to promote it. On a visit to Egypt last October, the friction the speech generated was still palpable. “I’ve spoken about [jailed opposition leader] Ayman Nour each time that I meet with my Egyptian counterparts,” she said in a dig at Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, who retorted, “You didn’t raise it today!” Condi had to have the last word, though: “I will Ahmed. I’m certain. You can be certain I will.”
أپs I write, Rice is on the way to my hotel, the famed Winter Palace on the River Nile in Luxor, for lunch with Abul Gheit in a chandeliered dining room, before she holds talks with Mubarak that will cover all the problems of the region. But the Bush people seem to have decided that getting Mubarak’s help in the region is more important than badgering him about democracy. Bush’s enthusiasm for elections in the Arab world started to dim a year ago, when the Muslim Brotherhood won one-fifth of the seats in Egypt’s parliament and Hamas took over the Palestinian assembly. Mubarak has been cracking down by arresting the Brotherhood’s leaders, with hardly a complaint from Washington.
Democratization in Egypt remains a crucial factor for progress in the Middle East, but nonetheless it’s hard to argue that it is more important than urgently addressing the multiple crises in the region where Egypt can and does play a constructive role. Mubarak could smugly tell Rice that if Bush had only listened to his advice before, when he said the invasion of Iraq would open a Pandora’s Box, then the U.S. wouldn’t be facing such a disaster in Iraq as it is now.
Arguably, Mubarak, quietly, has done more than any other single international figure in recent years to promote stablity in the region. He tried to keep peace talks going after Bush and Sharon walked away from Arafat in 2001. After Hamas’s victory last year, he kept up a dialogue with the group, which the U.S. refuses to deal with. Egypt has worked tirelessly for the release of the Israeli solder whose capture near Gaza by Hamas last year led to renewed Israeli-Palestnian fighting. Mubarak did everything to prevent last summer’s war in Lebanon that initially had Rice almost joyously proclaiming the birth of a new Middle East. After Hizballah captured two Israeli soldiers, Mubarak within hours dispatched Abul Gheit to Damascus to ask Assad to intervene with Hizballah and free the soldiers before Israel reacted. Mubarak stuck his neck out, even though the subsequent Israeli onslaught on Lebanon made Hizballah immensely popular in Egypt and further eroded Mubarak’s standing on his own street.
The Bush administration may be disinclined to listen to the Middle East advice of a bipartisan panel of Americans, but if she wants to avoid further disasters Rice will do well to hear well what America’s Arab allies are saying. They may have their own problems and work to do, but they know the region better than Bush does.