Egyptian activist sees liberals abandoned by US

Egyptian activist sees liberals abandoned by US

A prominent Egyptian human rights activist said waning U.S. pressure for democracy in Egypt has left liberals there cornered between an autocratic government and Islamists, with no prospect for change soon.

Hisham Kassem told Reuters on Tuesday that at meetings with President George W. Bush and senior U.S. officials he detected little interest in discussing prospects for democracy in Egypt.

“There will be no progress while (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak is in power,” he said in an interview. “He is on top. He really has entrenched his position over the last 26 years. I personally don”t know how to deal with him any more.”

“Now we are left struggling with the Mubarak regime and the transatlantic support it gets,” he said. The oppression of liberals allows more chances for the powerful Islamist opposition to gain ground, he added.

Kassem was one of four activists who received the prestigious Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy from Bush last month.

He and the other three spent close to an hour with Bush. Kassem also held talks with John Hannah, a senior adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

He said Bush held vibrant discussions about democracy with the other award-winning activists, who came from Russia, Venezuela and Thailand.

“To see the president of the United States in person and his more or less lack of interest in what is happening politically in Egypt left me without any doubt that this whole (democracy) programme was over.”

In 2005, the United States pushed for more democracy and basic freedoms in the Middle East, including in Egypt where President Mubarak has been in office since 1981.

The U.S. pressure, however, waned as Washington sought to appease friends in the region due to the deteriorating situation in Iraq, analysts say, giving Arab governments a freer hand to crack down on domestic political dissent.

In Egypt, which receives close to $2 billion a year in U.S. aid, authorities have shut down rights groups and escalated a crackdown on the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

Over the past month, 10 journalists and editors have received jail sentences for their writings.


Kassem said Bush was mainly interested in the position of Islamists in Egypt.

“I told him there is no alternative now for the people given that Islamists operate out of mosques while secular political parties are not allowed to operate at all, and with the difficult economic situation. I am worried that Egypt will become a theocracy in the 2010 (parliamentary elections).”

“Later he turned around and told me: “We give your country $2 billion a year in order to keep it stable and prevent it from turning into a theocracy.” He looked quite dismayed.”

Kassem said the president also asked about reformers in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

“I told him, “Sorry, there are no reformers at the NDP”, and then he moved on to Thailand. The rest of my conversations with him was about the history of the White House.”

Kassem said he had a similar impression after talks with Hannah, who he said was interested in knowing how close the U.S. campaign had been from creating a democratic process in Egypt.

“When one of his assistants brought up the subject of the journalists and what was happening against them, the man did not know about it,” he said.