Democracy advocates need heroes. And in Egypt, they've found them in two judges being punished after citing fraud in recent elections that gave a sure victory to President Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Mubarak's response? A violent crackdown on dissent.
Last week, security forces in Cairo viciously broke up peaceful protests on behalf of the two judges. The action, which came after renewed government detentions of pro-democracy activists, is a sure sign that Mubarak, a former military officer who's ruled Egypt with an iron fist for a quarter century, has decided he can backtrack on last year's promise to bring improvement in civil liberties and elections.
Mubarak's promises weren't credible from the start. They came only after the Bush administration (and some in Congress) pushed the leader of this giant Arab nation to turn away from the kind of Middle East authoritarianism that's bred Islamic radicals and terrorists for decades.
But Mubarak may now think he's won the argument with the US that freedom's just another word for Islamists taking power. He can cite Islamic militants having won the Palestinian election this year, while Iraq's elections have seated many Islamic Shiite radicals.
The only problem with that argument is that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a popular social and political group that's the granddaddy of today's Arab radicals, has begun to moderate itself, and could be given incentives toward more moderation.
Meanwhile, secular, pro-democracy forces have gained ground among Egyptians. Such progress, and the fact that Mubarak is grooming his son Gamal to follow him in office, suggests the president merely wants to cling to power, pharaoh style.
Egypt's 8,500 judges, who have an official hand in running elections, have long shown a streak of independence, and are struggling to keep it. Cairo's High Court building has become a rallying point in recent days for protesters trying to protect the two judges, Mahmoud Mekki and Hesham el-Bastawissi, who have accused some other judges of helping rig votes for last year's parliamentary elections.
The protesters need both moral and real support from abroad, especially from the US, which has given strategic ally Egypt $2 billion a year in aid for making peace with Israel nearly three decades ago. Dozens of activists have been arrested in recent weeks. The Bush administration has given only a minor rebuke to Mubarak's crackdown ("we are deeply concerned"), even though the repression represents a serious backward step for the Bush plan to transform the Middle East.
The US may be worried that Mubarak may not assist the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, or that he might not let US military planes fly over Egypt or allow US ships to go through the Suez Canal. But is avoiding those risks really worth the chance for the US to help bring democracy to such a large and important Arab nation?
Many revolutions for democracy have succeeded around the world in recent years, and most were nudged along with either US or European help. The Bush administration must provide more support for those activists who clearly advocate democracy for Egypt.