U.S. Stays an Unsteady Course to Middle East Peace and Democracy

CAIRO When the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Francis Ricciardone, arrived last year, he had cards printed to be carried by all the 2,000 employees of what is, after Iraq, the largest American Embassy in the world. They defined the mission as “to secure peace, to build democracy and to expand prosperity.”

Because peace has not been the overriding global message of the Bush administration, Ricciardone had the cards personally vetted – and approved – by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“Peace is the branding of the United States that still works,” he said. “Peace is what the Egyptians want us to do.”

But of course there have been distractions from an Israeli-Palestinian peace – not least the Iraq war – distractions for which Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, likes to reproach the United States. The bust-up in Lebanon this summer, an intransigent Israel and the rise of Hamas have not helped, either.

But peace is never removed from the table in the Middle East – merely delayed and delayed. In every war there are vested interests. After almost six decades, they become entrenched. It is hard to imagine a world without the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not hard to imagine that it would be a better one.

So Ricciardone keeps probing, and Mubarak does what he can in his cautious way, and when the pendulum swings from transformational gambles to the step-by-step exigencies of Realpolitik – as is the case in Republican-Democrat Washington today – Jerusalem returns to the table alongside Baghdad.

But, of course, there is the second clause of Ricciardone’s mission statement, “to build democracy.” Diplomatic efforts focused on an Israeli-Palestinian peace can no longer be cocooned from that; Hamas is now where it is through Palestinians’ votes.

As President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union speech this year, the Middle East is now a place with “men and women from Lebanon to Egypt debating the rights of individuals and the necessity of freedom.” The Brezhnev-like inertia of Mubarak’s Egypt has gone. The strongman’s peace is no longer a Middle Eastern option; peace and the ballot box must, in some measure, coexist.

That much Bush has set in motion. Whatever the new pragmatic influence of the likes of former Secretary of State James Baker 3rd, this change cannot be undone. The problem is that velvet revolutions are not a Middle Eastern thing. The region will not do a Central European glide to democracy. There’s more violent upheaval to come.

Yalta gave the United States a historical responsibility in Central Europe. In 1989, it rose to that. An unedifying history of support for Middle Eastern dictators, from the installation of the shah in Tehran in 1953 onward, gives America a similar historic debt in this region. Bush, for all the Iraqi ineptitude, has at least seized that fact.

But there’s another problem. It was put to me by Osama al-Ghazali Harb of the Al-Ahram Foundation. “In any Islamic country, the emergence of radical Islamic forces is mainly a product of dictatorship,” he said. “Totalitarian rule destroys all opposing forces – liberals, communists, socialists – except the Islamists, because they have the mosques, because they are close to the people, because they provide charity. So when the regime collapses, you find Islamists, as in Iran in 1979.”

In this sense, even beyond its cultivation of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan for anti-Soviet purposes, America bears some responsibility for the rise of anti-Western Islamic radicalism. It has been a response to the autocratic, U.S.-backed, Middle Eastern order now unraveling.

Egypt is central to how this unraveling proceeds. That’s why there are 2,000 folks at the U.S. Embassy. With almost 80 million citizens, it is the most populous Arab state by far and the natural leader of the Sunni world.

In Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, two of the country’s three significant leaders in the 53-year history of the republic, it produced figures of extraordinary pan-Arab impact. But Mubarak has been a politician in an opaque tone, the prudent successor to a leader assassinated for boldness, remote even from his own people.

Ricciardone believes democracy is now needed to bring Egyptians and their next leader closer. “The important thing is that whoever comes after Mubarak must have legitimacy in the eyes of Egyptians,” he said. “If whoever comes in has some form of legal process, a popular vote, however they choose to set that up, that person will have legitimacy. We’re not preaching the reckless holding of elections, but the building of institutions of democracy has to begin somewhere.”

There are no clear candidates for the succession other than Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who is viewed favorably in Washington as a reformist, Western-oriented figure. But opposition to him is strong in Egypt.

Ghazali Harb argues that Gamal would be a disaster and that democratization has stalled. The U.S. pressure that prized Egypt open in 2004 and 2005 – bringing students, judges and others into a significant protest movement – has disappeared because attention is on Iraq, he argued.

“We don’t want American force or money,” he said. “We want only one thing: political and moral support.” As for the Islamists, he said, their vote share could never exceed 30 percent in Egypt.

It has often been suggested that America’s strategic error in attempting to change the Middle East was to focus on Iraq rather than Iran. But a good case can be made that the error was not to focus on Egypt.

When a coup deposed King Farouk of Egypt in 1952, he sailed off to Europe. When a coup deposed King Faisal II in Baghdad in 1958, he was executed along with several members of the royal family, their bodies displayed in public. Egyptian civility runs as deep as Iraqi intransigence.

The ambassador made clear that he would keep pushing. “It’s not a straight, upward slope of progress toward democracy,” he said. “It’s ups and downs and all around. We’d prefer a more steady, upward course.”

Not least because when taking any sort of long view in today’s Middle East, peace, democracy and prosperity need to be addressed together.

E-mail: rocohen@nytimes.com