Why does the Mubarak regime continue to resort to these heavy-handed tactics against its peaceful opposition? Here is an attempted answer. Over nearly a quarter of a century, it has perfected the art of scare politics, at home and abroad. Those in Mubarak's regime argue that if he allowed democratization to proceed unchecked, with fair and honest elections, Islamists would undoubtedly take over.
None of his Western listeners ever answer this argument with some very pertinent questions: What, Mr. Mubarak, have you done to preserve the popularity of non-Islamist forces in the country? What has your regime done with more than $100 billion in foreign aid and remittances from Egyptians working abroad? Why has Egypt's ranking during your rule steadily worsened on every development index -- from that of the U.N. Development Program to the World Bank to Freedom House? And why does Egypt now rank with Russia, Syria and Nigeria among the most corrupt countries in the world?
Isn't it these dismal failings that feed popular discontent and contribute to the Islamists' growing numbers? And isn't it Mubarak's repression of secular civil forces that has kept the field empty for the Islamists in Egypt, where there are now more than 100,000 mosques where they can freely preach their message -- but only a handful of registered political parties and human rights groups?
Recently, as calls for political liberalization mounted from pro-democracy activists such as Ayman Nour and from the Group of Eight initiative for the Middle East, Mubarak has geared up his propaganda machine. The newspapers and newscasters now repeat endlessly the argument that economic reform and a settlement of the Palestinian question must take precedence -- as if a choice has to be made between these things and a genuinely democratic government for Egypt. (Lately Mubarak has added Iraq to this priority policy list.)
The free and fair elections in Iraq and Palestine, which would have to be regarded as premature by this standard -- both countries are, after all, under military occupation -- must have come as something of an embarrassment to Mubarak.
At the end of the article, he notes his disapointment with the feeble reaction of the Bush administration to the Nour arrest and writes:
What we have so far from George W. Bush is fine language in his inaugural and State of the Union speeches. That message was loud and clear. The credibility of the messenger is what is still in doubt.
This is clearly a call to the Bush administration to get tougher on Egypt, something they might be reluctant to do in light of Egypt's current involvement in the Gaza withdrawal and the peace process. Ibrahim is in Washington at the moment, writing his prison memoirs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I'm sure that while he's there he'll be having some interesting meetings.
Speaking of the Council of Foreign Relations, neo-con thinker Max Boot had a piece in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago on Egypt. This is what he suggests:
Strong words alone will not dislodge an entrenched dictator like Hosni Mubarak. Obviously we're not going to send the 3rd Infantry Division to achieve regime change in Cairo. How, then, is Bush going to back up his demand for democracy? Here's a modest proposal: Reduce or eliminate altogether the $2-billion annual U.S. subsidy to Egypt unless there's real economic and political progress.
It's worth noting that this is quite a different take on things that his Council of Foreign Relations colleague Steven Cook, who suggested that giving more money is the answer. Abu Aardvark had a debate about this a few days ago, to which I'll add more soon.