Rice’s Rhetoric, in Full Retreat

Eleven months ago Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit to report on their talks in Cairo. After Aboul Gheit summed up the topics, Rice pointed out that he had forgotten one: “Iran. You missed Iran.” She then spent most of her time on Egypt’s progress — or lack of it — “as it faces questions of democracy and reform.”

Last week Aboul Gheit and Rice again appeared side by side, this time in the Egyptian tourist capital, Luxor. Once again each offered a summary of the talks — which this year, unlike last, included President Hosni Mubarak. This time Iran loomed large in their discussions, as did Iraq. But it was Rice who neglected to mention something: “democracy and reform.” During the course of her visit to Egypt, and her latest tour through the Middle East, the words never publicly crossed her lips.

The reversal this represents is staggering — especially to Egyptians who have closely tracked Rice’s visits to their country. After all, her first notable act on moving to the State Department two years ago was to cancel a visit to Egypt in order to signal U.S. displeasure with the arrest of one of the country’s leading liberal democratic politicians, Ayman Nour. Thanks in part to Rice’s gesture, Nour was released and Mubarak announced a multicandidate election for president in which Nour was eligible to participate.

When Rice did get to Cairo, in June 2005, she delivered a speech at the American University that was a clarion call for democracy across the Middle East. She opened her joint news conference with Aboul Gheit by saying, “we look to the Egyptians and the Egyptian people to also take a major role in leading reform in this region.” And she warned Mubarak against using fraud and thuggery to manipulate the promised elections.

“The Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people,” she said. “The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees, and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice. The Egyptian government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose.”

In the succeeding months, Mubarak did the opposite. He did use fraud and violence to control the presidential and parliamentary elections. After they were over, Nour was again arrested, and he was sentenced to prison on patently bogus charges. So when Rice appeared alongside Aboul Gheit last February, she talked about “disappointments and setbacks.”

“We have talked candidly about those,” she said. “We want to see an Egypt that is fully developing politically and along the lines of reform as well. And so we’ve discussed the future of reform. We will continue to discuss the future of reform.”

Only things got worse. Mubarak canceled scheduled parliamentary elections. His security forces violently broke up protest demonstrations. Opposition leaders, from members of the Muslim Brotherhood to pro-democracy bloggers, were arrested and tortured. Nour’s appeals were denied.

Before Rice arrived in Cairo this time, the city was buzzing about Internet videos — not of Saddam Hussein but of Egyptian police who had been captured torturing innocent citizens. Mubarak had just announced a series of constitutional amendments that would exclude serious opposition candidates from future elections and curtail independent judicial monitoring of balloting. Nour is still in jail.

About all this, Rice said nothing. Instead, she praised the “important strategic relationship” with the 78-year-old Mubarak. In Rice’s new parlance, Egypt has suddenly become part of a “moderate mainstream” in the Middle East, which, the secretary hopes, will stand with the United States and Israel against the “extremists” — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Rice has made no real attempt to explain the somersault in her policy, which comes across as a feckless attempt to simplify the increasingly chaotic and dangerous situation across the region. But her latest duet with Aboul Gheit made me wonder if she still remembered that day at the American University. She took questions; one man pointed out that the United States had supported dictatorships in the Middle East for 60 years.

“Yes,” conceded Rice, “there’s 60 years when we didn’t — we were not outspoken about the need for democracy in this part of the world.”

“Things have changed. We had a very rude awakening on September 11th, when I think we realized that our policies to try and promote what we thought was stability in the Middle East had actually allowed, underneath, a very malignant, meaning cancerous, form of extremism to grow up underneath, because people didn’t have outlets for their political views.” She didn’t need to add that al-Qaeda was founded, in large measure, by Egyptians.

Five-and-a-half years after Sept. 11, the cancer is still growing in Egypt, and elsewhere in the “moderate mainstream.” But Rice and her president, it seems, have gone back to sleep.

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