Congress Presses for Egypt Opening
The Wall Street Journal
By Jay Solomon
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is facing pressure from Congress and human-rights groups to press Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to open up his country’s political system ahead of presidential elections there next year.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet the 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak, who has held power in Cairo for the past 29 years, at the White House on Wednesday night as the U.S. kick-starts the first round of direct Arab-Israeli peace talks in nearly two years.
Mr. Obama will also meet one-on-one with the leaders of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Egypt, as one of only two Arab states that has signed a peace agreement with Israel, is set to play a central role in the process and likely will serve as a host for future rounds of negotiations, said U.S. officials.
The White House declined to comment on whether Mr. Obama would press Mr. Mubarak on the election issue during the Wednesday meeting.
As next year’s Egyptian elections approach, some in Washington say the U.S. isn’t doing enough to make sure Egypt’s coming vote will be free and fair.
Many Middle East analysts believe Mr. Mubarak is preparing to pass power to his 47-year-old son, Gamal Mubarak, in a move that critics say would imperil democratic development in a key Arab state.
President Mubarak’s son is accompanying him to Washington, an Egyptian official said Tuesday. The official said the younger Mr. Mubarak wouldn’t be participating in any formal meetings connected with the peace process.
If elections result in instability in Egypt, a U.S. ally that long has served as a linchpin for Washington’s Middle East policies, it could cause headaches for Washington.
And the Obama administration could come under criticism in the Middle East if it is seen as helping extend the Mubarak family’s hold on power.
“Will the U.S. sit back and simply allow Mubarak to fix his transition?” asked Robert Kagan, a security analyst at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We’re living on borrowed time with Mubarak.”
President George W. Bush’s administration often butted heads with Cairo as the U.S. aggressively promoted democracy in the Middle East after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mr. Mubarak didn’t visit Washington during Mr. Bush’s second term, in what many U.S. officials believe was a protest against U.S. calls for political change in Egypt.
Mr. Obama has been less outspoken in calling for political openness across the Mideast. In the case of Egypt, the State Department has reduced funding targeted solely at democracy promotion. It also agreed last year to Cairo’s demands that the Egyptian government decide which local groups qualify as nongovernmental organizations and can receive foreign aid.
Egyptian activists say the U.S. position has allowed Mr. Mubarak’s government to further consolidate control over the country’s political process and starve Egypt’s civil society of funds.
Several NGOs considered illegal by the Egyptian’s government now “don’t receive funding, not from the United States, but even from European sources,” Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said at a June conference in Washington.
The Obama administration says the U.S. hasn’t reduced its focus on human rights in Egypt. The State Department said it has regularly raised the issues of democracy and political change with Egypt.
The State Department has also voiced concerns about the transparency and inclusiveness of parliamentary elections recently held in Egypt.
Karim Haggag, a spokesman for Egypt’s embassy in Washington, said Cairo is working for fair elections.
“Egypt’s electoral law has ample safeguards for a free and fair election,” he said. “President Mubarak has consistently called for elections in Egypt to be free and fair.”
Last month, the State Department’s point person on Middle East democracy programs publicly voiced concerns about alleged fraud and voter exclusion tied to this year’s elections for Egypt’s upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council.
“I’ll be frank – we are concerned by what we’ve seen so far,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes. “Egyptian citizens alone should decide who will run in, and ultimately win, Egypt’s elections.”
Karim Haggag, a spokesman for Egypt’s embassy in Washington, said his government is working for fair elections. “Egypt’s electoral law has ample safeguards for a free and fair election,” he said. “President Mubarak has consistently called for elections in Egypt to be free and fair.”
A number of U.S. lawmakers are pressing the administration to do more. The Senate is debating a non-binding resolution that would seek to make a dialogue on democracy and human rights a formal part of bilateral relations between Egypt and the U.S. The measure also calls for the U.S. to press Cairo harder to end Egypt’s 1981 Emergency Law, which allows Mr. Mubarak’s security forces to detain suspects without charges.
U.S.-based organizations, such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, have recently written to Mr. Mubarak seeking permission to monitor next year’s presidential election. Mr. Haggag said that was unlikely to be allowed.
Many Middle East experts believe Mr. Mubarak’s government could face a stiff political challenge next year if Egypt’s political process were opened up.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nation’s nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has emerged as a leading opposition figure. In recent weeks, he has announced a political alliance with Egypt’s most powerful Islamic organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.Top