The Egyptian publisher Hisham Kassem was in Washington last week to pick up the National Endowment for Democracy's prestigious annual Democracy Award, in recognition of his role in jump-starting a free Egyptian press. Along with two other honorees, he spent nearly an hour in the Oval Office with President Bush, who spoke with feeling about his "freedom agenda" and his intention to pursue it after he leaves office.Having spent some time with Egypt-watchers in and out of the administration in Washington last May, I came to the same conclusion.
But Kassem could not help but feel a little depressed. While he was being honored, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was directing a frontal assault against the island of liberty Kassem helped to create in Cairo -- independent newspapers that have subjected Mubarak's rotting autocracy to serious scrutiny for the first time. And hardly anyone in Washington seemed to care.
"Egypt was the least of his priorities," Kassem said of Bush, who spoke more enthusiastically during their meeting about pushing for democracy in Burma, Venezuela and Russia. "You can feel Egypt is on the back burner right now. Everyone is in despair about the situation."