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Mubarak, Let Your People Go

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Hosni Mubarak must think that George W. Bush is a chump. The Egyptian pharaoh apparently realizes that the U.S. president is serious about spreading freedom and democracy to the Middle East, but he still thinks he can get away with cosmetic changes that do nothing to seriously change the ugly nature of his regime.

Mubarak grandly proclaims that in this fall’s presidential election other candidates will be allowed to challenge him for the first time. But then his handpicked parliamentarians pass electoral rules that make a genuine contest virtually impossible. To qualify for the ballot, candidates who don’t belong to one of the officially approved parties will have to get the support of hundreds of Mubarak’s yes men in parliament and the provincial councils. This prevents the leader of the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood from running. The liberal Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party has won official recognition, but its leader, Ayman Nour, may not be able to run because of bogus criminal charges that he forged signatures on a petition. The trumped-up case against Nour is only one sign that repression is intensifying in Egypt. Members of the Kifaya (Enough) movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, the most notable anti-government groups, have seen their peaceful public demonstrations broken up by riot police. Protesters have been arrested and roughed up.

There is little hope that Mubarak will give opposition candidates equal access to state-owned TV stations and newspapers, which regularly extol his virtues with embarrassing exaggeration. Nor can he be trusted to hold a fair vote. A group representing Egyptian judges has refused to supervise the balloting because, as one judge put it, they “won’t participate in fraud.” Even Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief, on a charm tour of the United States this week, has to admit that Egypt won’t see a truly contested election until 2011 at the earliest.

Nazief justifies this go-slow approach with soothing talk about how “democracy is an evolutionary process,” and you can’t go too fast lest Islamic extremists take control. But that’s what the shah of Iran said in the 1970s. It turned out that his opposition to democratic reform made an Islamist takeover more, not less, likely. Same with Egypt: The less access that fed-up people have to the political process, the more likely they are to be seduced by the hard-line mullahs’ siren song.

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Bush shouldn’t sit still for Mubarak’s obstructionism, which breeds greater hostility not only against the regime in Cairo but also against its backers in Washington. The U.S. should cut or eliminate its annual $2-billion subsidy to Egypt until Mubarak gets serious about liberal reform.

Even the mere threat of an aid cutoff would cause a tizzy throughout the Arab world. After I made that very proposal on this page in February, Jihad Khazen, former editor in chief of the influential London-based, Saudi-owned daily Al Hayat, published a lengthy column of vitriol directed at ye olde columnist. I was labeled a “Likudist Goebbels ... who is overfilled with hatred towards the Arabs and Muslims.”

According to Khazen, Mubarak isn’t really a dictator because he has “led his country about a quarter of a century without getting involved in wars or regional disputes” -- a novel definition of “dictator” that would rule out Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe too. He suggests that instead of pressuring Egypt, the U.S. should fight “Israeli terrorism as it fights [Al Qaeda’s] terrorism.” (Should the U.S. try to kill Ariel Sharon?)

This sort of claptrap, reminiscent of Nazi or communist doublespeak, has been standard fare throughout the Middle East for decades. Anti-American and anti-Semitic hate-mongering has been stoked by ostensibly pro-American regimes in Riyadh, Cairo and elsewhere that have found it convenient to direct their people’s frustration outward.

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But lately the dictators’ survival strategy has been breaking down. Free elections have been held by Afghanistan, Iraq and, arguably, the Palestinian Authority. Syrian occupiers have been run out of Lebanon by popular pressure. The latest sign of democratic ferment sweeping the region is Kuwait’s decision to grant political rights to women.

The tyrants are terrified. Like Europe’s ancien regimes facing the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, they are doing whatever they can to contain this unrest before it sweeps them out of their palaces. The land of Washington and Lincoln should stand with the people against their oppressors. Keep the pressure on Mubarak.


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