The opposition and outside groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom House have rightly described the amendments as the greatest setback to freedom in Egypt in a quarter-century. Yet the Bush administration has barely reacted. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is visiting Egypt this weekend, said Friday that "it's disappointing" that Egypt hasn't proved to be a leader of liberalization. But the State Department is downplaying the constitutional amendments. While acknowledging some "concerns," a spokesman said last week that "a process of political reform has begun in Egypt" and that "you have to put this in the wider context."They also have a story about Rice's trip to Egypt and the Egyptian reaction to her mild criticism.
Here's the wider context: The Bush administration used its considerable leverage over Egypt to force some initial steps toward democratic change two years ago. Then it slowly reversed itself and now has come full circle, once again embracing a corrupt autocracy. It's a shameful record, and one that Egyptians -- who, then as now, mostly despise their government -- won't quickly forget.
Andrew Exum and Zack Snyder of WINEP call the US "a willing accomplice" of the Mubarak regime:
The United States is the only external power that can exert any meaningful pressure on Egypt, but, to do so, Washington must grasp the significance of these inherently antidemocratic amendments to the Egyptian constitution. Should the administration issue strong, forceful statements in opposition to such purported "reforms," it will help the cause of civil society groups across the Middle East. On the other hand, should it continue to maintain this indifference toward a fundamental assault on key political rights, it runs the risk of inviting Congress to weigh in on the issue. Most opposition parties in Egypt are not, it must be said, friendly to U.S. interests in the region. But they -- like the Egyptian government -- closely follow the statements that come out of Washington. So too do democracy activists in the region, and it is for them as much as anyone that the United States ought not allow this encroachment on political freedom to go unchallenged.Last week the Financial Times called Mubarak misguided and called for military aid to be leveraged:
The regression in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, is part of an attempt by despots across the region to regroup and consolidate their power. With the US giving up on the freedom agenda and reverting back to its old policy of backing autocratic regimes as long as it likes their foreign policy, the first stirrings of democracy witnessed two years ago are fading.If the opposition in this country is going to get serious, then it may be time for it to start a campaign for all US military aid to be converted to civilian aid. It's an approach that would find much support in the US Congress and would place Cairo in a position where it would have to refuse this aid or accept wherever USAID wants to spend it. Aside from democracy-promotion programs, there are plenty of work they could still do in infrastructure development, health and education. The question is whether the US military and US arms companies that sell to Egypt (one of the US' best customers) would be happy with that. But there would be a clear moral appeal to such a campaign, and it could focus attentions both in Egypt and the US as well as involve the last interest group the Mubarak regime wants to have involved in politics: the military.
But the US has leverage: it provides $1.3bn every year to Egypt's army, for example, the backbone of the regime. It should use this influence to end, rather than promote, repression. The European Union too should raise its voice, particularly after having recently agreed with Cairo an aid package ostensibly tied to political reforms.
Western governments might be entertaining the fantasy that weakening Egypt's Islamists would open more space for secular parties to prosper. But Mr Mubarak's scorched earth record towards all dissent, secular or Islamist, shows he will brook no challenge. Not long ago his government's main target was the liberal al-Ghad party, whose leader ran against him for the presidency and now languishes in jail. Egypt's western friends should by now know that Mr Mubarak's moves are likely to backfire, radicalising the Islamists and boosting their popularity.