Egypt continues crackdown on reformists as US appears distracted with other issues

Egypt continues crackdown on reformists as US appears distracted with other issues
Egypt’s government is cracking down on pro-reform activists, calculating that Washington’s drive to democratise the Middle East has flagged after Islamist successes in Egyptian and Palestinian elections, analysts say.

The prospect of civil war in Iraq has also distracted the United States and dampened its enthusiasm for rapid change in countries ruled by its friends, they add.

The Egyptian government, which allowed unusual political dissent during presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005, now senses it has a freer hand to stifle criticism, they argue.

“Despite Hamas’s democratic win in the occupied territories, the American response is negative. They got cold feet. I think the Egyptian administration and other Arab leaders are feeling that too,” political science professor Walid Kazziha said.

“There is a feeling that the United States, which was very determined, very strong on this question of democratisation, is beginning to mellow, and Iraqi exhaustion is setting in.”

In recent weeks the authorities have postponed local elections, lifted immunity from three judges critical of election abuses and jailed a journalist for libel.

Ayman Nour, a prominent opposition leader, remains in prison on forgery charges despite publicly aired U.S. misgivings, and faces further charges for allegedly assaulting a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

“These are to us are very ominous signs that the regime is far from fulfilling its pledges and is regressing on the reform front,” sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim said.

The main beneficiary of public dissatisfaction with the NDP has been the Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned but usually tolerated Islamist group.

The Muslim Brotherhood confirmed its place as Egypt’s largest opposition group when it won 88 seats in parliamentary elections last year. It has close ideological links with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group which swept recent polls.

In a visit to Cairo last week to press Arab states to isolate Hamas, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said some recent Egyptian political events had been disappointing.