Wall Street Journal Cites IRI-NDI 2010 Letter to Mubarak Urging Him to Allow Election Monitors

U.S. Had Year of Warnings Over Egypt
The Wall Street Journal
By Jay Solomon

WASHINGTON — Early last year, a group of U.S.-based human-rights activists, neoconservative policy makers and Mideast experts told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that what passed for calm in Egypt was an illusion.

“If the opportunity to reform is missed, prospects for stability and prosperity in Egypt will be in doubt,” read their April 2010 letter.

Egyptian soldiers march Tuesday past the building of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in Cairo, an early focus of antiregime protesters’ rage.

The correspondence was part of a string of warnings passed to the Obama administration arguing that Egypt, heading toward crisis, required a vigorous U.S. response. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s 82-year-old dictator, was moving to rig a string of elections, they said. Egypt’s young population was growing more agitated.

The bipartisan body that wrote to Mrs. Clinton, the Egypt Working Group, argued that the administration wasn’t fully appraising the warning signs in Egypt. Its members came together in early 2010, concerned that the Arab world’s biggest country was headed for transition but that the U.S. and others weren’t preparing for a post-Mubarak era.

The Cairo uprising has so far had a more orderly outcome, and one better for U.S. interests, than might have been the case. But the U.S.’s hesitant initial embrace of the revolt could reverberate as a democratic wave surges across the Arab world. The U.S. at first alienated protesters—and then alienated the Mubarak regime, a longtime ally, sparking concern from other regional friends.

U.S. officials say the Obama administration focused from the beginning on promoting democracy in Arab states and was aware of the deep problems in Cairo. The administration generally chose not to deliver its message through tough public rhetoric, contending such language alienates foreign governments.

The administration of George W. Bush, by comparison, at times publicly pressed Mr. Mubarak for political reforms, identifying democracy promotion in the Middle East as a key tenet of U.S. foreign policy.

Officials said President Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton regularly raised democracy issues with their counterparts in private. Mr. Obama focused during three meetings over 18 months with Mr. Mubarak on ending Egypt’s 30-year state of emergency, press freedoms and elections. Mrs. Clinton pushed Egypt and other Arab countries to allow the free flow of information, urging them to lift blocks on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Moreover, Mr. Mubarak had survived challenges before, and few took seriously the idea he could be toppled. “This type of movement simply never happened before in the Middle East,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator.

“In a complicated situation, we got it about right,” Mr. Obama told reporters Tuesday. The U.S. now faces “an opportunity as well as a challenge” in the broader regional movement.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama campaigned against aggressively intervening in the affairs of other states, largely in response to the Iraq war. His State Department cut funding for civil-society support in Egypt to $9.5 million in 2009 from nearly $30 million a year earlier, although this funding line would later rise.

Washington’s ambassador to Cairo, Margaret Scobey, agreed to an Egyptian demand that all grants to civil-society groups from the U.S. Agency for International Development be distributed only to those registered with the Mubarak government.

When Mr. Obama chose Egypt as the venue for his much-anticipated June 2009 speech to the Muslim world, he refrained from specifically pressing Mr. Mubarak on democracy.

The Obama administration reaped strategic gains from this outreach. Cairo embraced Mr. Obama’s initiative to accelerate Arab-Israeli peace talks, hosting meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and attempting to broker a unity government between feuding Palestinian factions.

By early 2010, Mr. Mubarak’s government began taking steps widely viewed as aimed at extending his rule or that of his anointed successor. In May, he extended martial law in his country by two years.

The Egypt Working Group sent a letter to the State Department even more alarmist than the one it dispatched in April. “The renewal…heightens our concern that the administration’s practice of quiet diplomacy is not bearing fruit,” it read.

Following June elections for the lower house of parliament, Egyptian and American nongovernmental organizations reported to State Department contacts a crackdown on anyone seeking to bring transparency to the next set of elections, for Egypt’s upper house of parliament, in November. The National Democratic Institute, a U.S. organization that was training Egyptians to be election monitors, saw its Egyptian staff regularly interrogated by Cairo’s intelligence services.

“The families of our workers grew terrified about retaliation by the regime,” said Les Campbell, who heads NDI’s Mideast programs. Mr. Campbell said he held regular meetings with U.S. officials to discuss the problems as the crisis in Egypt worsened.

To try to stop the intimidation tactics, the NDI’s chairman—former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—and Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.), chairman of the International Republican Institute, jointly wrote to Mr. Mubarak in late July asking him to allow international monitors to observe the November vote. They say the Egyptian leader didn’t respond.

Sen. McCain sought to pass, with then-Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a Senate resolution formally censuring Egypt’s human-rights record. Egypt persuaded the two senators to anonymously place a hold on the resolution, according to congressional officials. Sen. McCain blamed the Obama administration for not publicly backing the bill.

“I was disappointed that we didn’t get administration support,” Sen. McCain said in an interview. “To think this would have changed things fundamentally at the time in Egypt? I don’t know. But we at least should have tried.”

Senior U.S. officials said they weren’t opposed to Mr. McCain’s resolution. They said both the White House and State Department repeatedly raised concerns about the fairness and openness of November elections with their Egyptian counterparts.

For analysts tracking Egypt, the risks inherent in the elections were clear. “If the ruling party plops someone in as president…then you really have the possibility of the lid popping off in Egypt,” Robert Kagan, a Working Group member and conservative foreign-policy analyst, said in a November interview. “We’re playing this Cold War game of clinging to the dictator for fear of something more radical.”

Weeks later, Mrs. Clinton met Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Washington and didn’t mention the need for transparent elections during their public remarks. Instead, she praised Cairo as the “cornerstone” of Middle East stability.

In the late 2010 upper-house election, Mr. Mubarak’s party won 93% of the seats. It was widely viewed as the most corrupt in the country’s history.

That prompted the Obama administration to take a harder line on Mr. Mubarak and other regional strongmen. Mrs. Clinton, on a swing through Gulf states in early January, echoed the sharp rhetoric of the Bush years by telling a gathering of Arab leaders in Qatar that their countries risked “sinking into the sand” if they didn’t change.

But even in the final stages of Egypt’s unrest, the U.S. went back and forth. On Jan. 30—days after protests broke out on Egyptian streets—Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D., Mass.) called Vice President Joe Biden to say he had written an opinion piece for the New York Times calling on Mr. Mubarak to resign.

Mr. Biden offered encouragement, Mr. Kerry said in an interview. “My instincts and feeling was the thing was broken with Mubarak,” he said.

Just a few days later, the administration’s chosen envoy, former ambassador Frank Wisner, delivered a much more tepid message to the Egyptian president, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the end, Mr. Obama took increasingly strident tones that all but called for Mr. Mubarak’s removal. As protests continue to roil the region, administration officials say they will stick to basic principles: supporting the core rights of people to assemble and protest peacefully.

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