Mubarak meets Obama to patch up US-Egypt relationship

The Egyptian president hopes Obama will back away from Bush's push for reform, which caused a rift between the two nations.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Supporters of visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sing and dance outside of the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, Monday, where he met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Until five years ago, it was an annual tradition: every spring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would travel to Washington to meet his American counterpart, congressional leaders, and a few newspaper editorial boards.

Mr. Mubarak usually sat down with public affairs talk show host Charlie Rose, where the authoritarian military man would invariably grow testy after a half-hour of Mr. Rose's persistent questioning.

"It was like his annual pilgrimage," says Khalil Al-Anani, an analyst with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Then came Sept. 11, the war on terror, and a pronounced chilling of the US-Egypt relationship.

Now, with Mubarak in Washington for the first time in five years, Egyptian media are hailing a new era of bilateral harmony between the world's sole superpower and the country struggling to remain the Middle East's political linchpin. He is expected to meet President Barack Obama on Tuesday morning.

Mubarak's pitch? A continuation of America's hands-off policy and the US aid that has helped keep this impoverished nation afloat since the 1978 Camp David Accords in exchange for assisting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt receives $2 billion in direct US aid annually, second only to Israel.

The visit has dominated local newspapers for days. Local speculation is rampant that another Mubarak goal will be securing quiet American approval for a plan to eventually transfer power to his son Gamal. The cover of the influential regime-connected magazine Rose Al Youssef declares nothing less than a "Rebuilding of the Egyptian-American Relationship."

But there are also worries within the regime and among its backers that President Obama, like President Bush before him, will harp on Egypt's poor human rights record and Mubarak's authoritarian rule. The same Rose Al Youssef cover story nervously asks: "Will Egypt accept a lecture on democracy from Obama that it refused to accept from Bush?"

The Bush administration's calls for political reform are now recalled here as the low point in several decades of tight US-Egypt relations. The regime was shocked when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a public dressing-down of Mubarak in a June 2005 speech in Cairo, saying, "it is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."

Though the Bush administration quickly backed off from its democracy push after the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of parliament in November 2005 and Hamas won Palestinian elections in January 2006, the chill on US-Egypt relations remained. Mubarak stayed away.

A return to realpolitik?

Regardless of Egypt's willingness to accept a democracy lecture, it's unclear whether Obama is inclined to deliver one in the first place.

Obama's Middle East focus has been on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear ambitions. The result so far, activists and analysts here say, is a return to the days of old-fashioned realpolitik, with the US turning a blind eye to repressive local governments as long as they serve America's regional political agenda.

"Obama needs Egypt as a cornerstone of the peace process" and as part of a "strategic partnership" against Iran, says Mr. Anani. "He is going back to the old game – encouraging stability even if it means supporting authoritarian regimes."

Mubarak's government has run Egypt under a de facto state of martial law for all of his 28 years in power. Extralegal arrests and detentions are commonplace, and international human rights groups contend that torture in Egyptian police stations is systematic.

A prominent newspaper editor was jailed in 2007 for speculating in print that Mubarak was in poor health. The nation's most powerful opposition voice, the Muslim Brotherhood, is formally banned and subject to an ongoing crackdown that has accelerated in recent years. The Brotherhood is blocked by the government from forming a political party, and its members run for parliament as nominal independents.

Speculation over power transfer

Nevertheless, Obama chose Cairo for his landmark address to the Muslim world in June – a speech that contained only a mention of the need for democratic reform.

Essam al-Arian, a high-ranking Muslim Brotherhood member, says the Obama administration has repeatedly signaled it won't publicly pressure Egypt for domestic reform.

"The Egyptian file is now up to [Mubarak]. He can do whatever he wants internally," says Mr. Arian, who spent six months in jail in 2006. "It feels like we've gone backward a little bit."

The younger Mubarak, a former investment banker, has risen steadily to a leadership position within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Despite holding no official government position, he has previously traveled to the US with delegations of Egyptian cabinet ministers and met with US congressmen and administration officials.

Gamal is accompanying his father on this trip, even though there are higher-ranking members of the NDP who aren't going to Washington.

Both Mubaraks have frequently denied any sort of power-transfer plans, but that hasn't stopped the mounting speculation fueled by the elderly Mubarak's shaky health.

According to Arian, Mubarak's top priority in Washington will be "the power transfer."

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