News Analysis: Rice speaks softly in Egypt

In the days before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with officials in Egypt, the news media here were filled with stories detailing charges of corruption, cronyism, torture and political repression.

Cellphone videos posted on the Internet showed the police sodomizing a bus driver with a broomstick. Another showed the police hanging a woman by her knees and wrists from a pole for questioning. A company partly owned by a member of the governing party distributed tens of thousands of bags of contaminated blood to hospitals around the country. And just 24 hours before Ms. Rice arrived, the authorities arrested a television reporter on charges of harming national interests by making a film about police torture. The reporter was released, but the authorities kept the tapes.

Ms. Rice, who once lectured Egyptians on the need to respect the rule of law, did not address those domestic concerns. Instead, with Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit by her side, she talked about her appreciation for Egypt’s support in the region.

It was clear that the United States — facing chaos in Iraq, rising Iranian influence and the destabilizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict — had decided that stability, not democracy, was its priority, Egyptian political commentators, political aides and human rights advocates said.

But the calculus of stabilization is so complicated and fraught in a region as fragile as the Middle East, where interests are defined by religion, geography, geopolitics and political opportunism, it is not at all clear that the new (old) approach will work. The United States is so unpopular in the region now, many here say, that its support is enough to undermine a government’s legitimacy with its public.

“The former pressure was an illusion and the lack of any pressure now will push the crisis between the people and their rulers to the edge,” said Ibrahim Eissa, the editor of Al Dustoor, a weekly independent newspaper in Egypt that is critical of the government. That eliminates “all false appearances that the Arab regimes are against the United States in defense of their independent sovereignty and that the United States is supporting democracy when it is in strict alliance with the oppressive regimes,” he added.

The dynamics of the region have also changed over the years, and it is no longer clear what the payoff is for Washington in return for overlooking rights violations. It is not certain, for example, that the Egypt of 2007 can deliver the kind of influence it once wielded when it was seen as the political and cultural center of the Arab world. Egypt has failed to calm fighting between Palestinian factions, or to help negotiate the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants.

At the same time, where Washington was criticized in the past for supporting repressive governments, it risks even sharper criticism now because it made such a public commitment to promoting democracy.

Ms. Rice raised the bar herself when she visited American University here in 2005 and said in a speech: “We are all concerned for the future of Egypt’s reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy — men and women — are not free from violence. The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees — and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.”

Since then, Egypt’s government has piled up a long list of repressive actions, including ordering the police to block people from voting in parliamentary elections; delaying local elections by two years; imprisoning an opposition leader, Ayman Nour, on charges widely seen as politically motivated; battling with judges who have demanded oversight of elections; and imprisoning Talaat el-Sadat, a member of Parliament and the nephew of President Anwar el-Sadat, for a year in a military jail after he criticized the armed forces on television.

Recently, President Hosni Mubarak proposed amending the Constitution in ways that would make it easier for Egypt’s toothless opposition parties to field candidates for president. But the proposals would ban truly independent candidates from running, limit the role judges play in monitoring elections and permanently outlaw any party with a religious bent.

Perhaps more to the point, the government has done little if anything to improve a climate across the country that discourages participation in opposition politics, many political analysts said.

“The government has said to us, ’Stop, we are closing all the windows and doors we had opened,’ said Hafez Abu Seada, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

Three hours north of Cairo, in Kafr Ghamam, a village of about 40,000 people, a small group of men said they had tried to build a following for the Wafd Party, which would seem to be uncontroversial. It is, after all, a legal opposition party and, like other government-sanctioned parties, has virtually no influence.

To win support from the village, the men tried to persuade the government to cover a pit where raw sewage was dumped and to repair a bridge that ran over the pit. But the men said no one would sign a letter to the government requesting the aid because they were afraid to be identified with an opposition party.

“My father threatened to kick me out of the house if I got involved with this party,” said Mustafa Ibrahim Abdel Hamid, a 21-year-old in the village.

What are people afraid of? A knock at the door, many people there said. Last month, after a group of party organizers gathered to discuss who would hold which position in the nascent organization, two men who took over leading posts were visited by state security, they said.

“I got scared and I wanted to resign,” said one of the men, Al Sayed Muhammad Ibrahim. “I wanted to resign. I have daughters. I don’t want any problems. My daughters, my son, my wife, all asked me to resign.”

In Luxor on Monday afternoon, the Egyptian authorities organized a news conference with Ms. Rice and Mr. Aboul Gheit.

“I especially want to thank President Mubarak for receiving me and for spending so much time with me to talk about the issues of common interest here in the Middle East,” Ms. Rice said. “Obviously the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship — one that we value greatly.”

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