Democracy on the back burner?


Senior national security correspondent Jonathan Karl blogs about traveling to Egypt with the Secretary of Defense:

What a difference a couple years makes.

In June 2005, I traveled to Cairo to hear an extraordinary speech by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about democracy in the Middle East. For too long, she said, the United States had supported dictatorial governments in the pursuit of peace and security and “achieved neither.”

“Now, we are taking a different course,” Rice declared back then. “We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Rice’s words were extraordinary because she said in Egypt, a country that exemplifies the U.S. policy of supporting friendly (to the U.S.) tyrannies in the Middle East. But her speech was an extension of the promises President Bush made in his second inaugural address, when he said, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.”

And now?

I returned to Cairo Wednesday, this time with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak is an important American ally. He’s also held near dictatorial powers in Egypt for nearly 30 years. Most recently, Mubarak’s government has been criticized for conducting a brutal campaign against political opponents, beating up demonstrators and throwing dissidents in jail. The only individual ever to run against Mubarak for president, an opposition leader named Ayman Nour, was sent to prison for 5 years. His crime: allegedly forging the signatures that got his name on the ballot. At the time, the White House condemned the arrest as an affront to democracy:

“The United States is deeply troubled by the conviction today of Egyptian politician Ayman Nour by an Egyptian court. The conviction of Mr. Nour, the runner-up in Egypt’s 2005 presidential elections, calls into question Egypt’s commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rule of law.”

Strong words. But Mr. Nour remains in jail.

After the Mubarak meeting, Gates held a short press conference. I asked him about the big push for democracy in the Middle East; his terse reply made it clear that issue is now on the back burner. Here’s the exchange:

Q: Mr. Secretary, given urgent need for the support of Egypt and other countries of this region for Iraq, has the United States given up on the effort to push democracy in this region — and did you, in your meeting with President Mubarak bring up Egypt’s increasingly aggressive and brutal crackdown on political dissidents here in Egypt?

SEC. GATES: My conversations with President Mubarak were focused strictly on the situation in the region — on the peace process, on Iraq, and on Iran.

He then ended the press conference.

Later Secretary Gates addressed large luncheon of Egyptian business leaders sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo. This is a crowd that has been very uncomfortable with the administration’s push for democracy in the Middle East. After his speech — which praised Egypt as an important ally and urged Egypt and its neighbors to support the government in Iraq — Gates was asked an oddly cynical question.

The questioner asked, if the Egypt completed a free trade agreement with the United States, and if Egypt sent thousands of troops to help in Iraq, “would you forget about Ayman Nour.” The question drew laughter from the crowd and a chuckle from Gates. He answered:

“In the United States we have a practice of not answering hypothetical questions,” Gates joked, drawing more laughter.

It was an odd scene. The U.S. Secretary of Defense laughing with a crowd of wealthy Egyptian and American business leaders about a political prisoner.