Egypt's Silence to Bush's Call

As he aims for more political liberties in the Middle East to reduce Islamist violence, President Bush finds he needs many different kinds of arrows in his quiver.

First, he used the invasion of Iraq to bring about last month's elections that help set the course for democracy. Next door, Saudi Arabia's royal princes took the message and held the kingdom's first municipal elections on Feb. 10 - but with only men allowed to vote for now and the winners occupying mainly ceremonial posts. More limited elections are to follow.

Then last week, after a bombing in Beirut, Mr. Bush demanded Syria pull its troops out of Lebanon and end its grip on its neighbor's politics. In Iran, he seems resigned to somehow assisting the very pro-American citizenry to rise up against the unpopular ruling clerics before they figure out how to make an atomic bomb.

But the big prize in Bush's vision of a democratic Middle East is Egypt, the populous Arab nation and once the region's political giant. There he seems to be failing.

The president laid his reputation on the line by stating in his State of the Union speech that Egypt should "show the way" toward democracy in the Middle East. He reiterated that call in Brussels Monday. Such public statements often risk backfiring by hardening a dictator's obstinacy. And Egypt should be given some leeway to set its own course toward democracy.

But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has acted with such ruthless obstinacy toward the country's own advocates for democracy that Bush's call is quite necessary.

Mr. Mubarak, who's been in power since 1981 and may run for "reelection" in a one-man race this October, threw mud at Bush's vision for the region by arresting an opposition member of Egypt's parliament, Ayman Nour, who heads a new party, al-Ghad (Tomorrow).

He's so far been able to avoid much US pressure with such behavior because Egypt plays a role in the Palestinian-Israel peace moves. He also claims, falsely, that democracy in Egypt would open the floodgates to Islamic radicals that he has suppressed. The truth is that a lack of democracy creates the conditions for radicals to keep emerging.

To test Mubarak before his "reelection," Bush needs to wield one big stick: a threat to withhold the annual $1.2 billion in aid to Egypt. Even that, though, might not be enough. Mubarak may simply ensure his son wins the election, while also allowing an facade of political liberalization.

The fact that several key Al Qaeda leaders came from Egypt is reason enough for Bush to act. Mubarak's rule has failed the US and Arabs, too.

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