Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Do Not Mess With Mubarak

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on August 20, 2009
Avoiding certain issues, such as democratic governance, will be tatamount to the survival of the U.S.-Egyptian alliance

Avoiding certain issues, such as democracy and human-rights, will be momentous to a strengthened U.S.-Egyptian alliance

While lawmakers in Congress and officials within Washington continue their summer-vacations in the dog-days of summer, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is traveling to the nation’s capital for the first time in six years.  Of course, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will undoubtedly rise to the forefront of the discussion between the Egyptian leader and President Obama, another issue may very well prop onto the diplomatic agenda…namely Mubarak’s reluctance to support anything democratic inside his own country.  The simple fact that Mr. Mubarak has reined supreme in Egyptian politics over the past 28 years accurately demonstrates his devotion to an authoritarian and hard-line regime.  With human rights abuses frequently occurring within the very confines of Egyptian society, and with Cairo’s security services internationally known for shutting down democratic movements throughout the country, it is understandable for Americans and Egyptians alike to question the legitimacy of Mubarak’s administration.  Yet, while abuses are certainly taking place (thanks to the reporting of Human Rights Watch), this should not cloud the minds of Washington policymakers with respect to Egypt’s primary role in the Middle East peace process.

President Barack Obama would not have invited Mr. Mubarak to Washington if his interests did not coincide with those of Egypt’s most powerful politician.  Each man, while possessing distinguished personal characteristics, are both heavily interested in reconciling diplomatic relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.  Both consider themselves bulwarks against a rising Iranian power in the region, an ascendance that Americans and Egyptians alike view as both dangerous and potential catastrophic to a stable Middle East.  In addition, and perhaps the most important of all, Washington and Cairo view one another as valuable allies in the “War on Terrorism.”  Egypt’s disruption of an alleged Hezbollah-endorsed terrorist plan only serves as a testament to this assertion:  Mubarak, despite all of his flaws as an autocrat, takes the terrorist threat with the utmost sincerity.  In a region where terrorism is free to maneuver with relative ease, this is precisely the type of ally that Washington needs to champion if any hopes for “victory” are realistic in the next ten or twenty years.

With all of the parallels existing between the American and Egyptian governments, and with the Arab population consistently embracing Egypt’s role as an important mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, President Obama would be wise to avoid chastising Cairo’s record on human rights.  Of course, this would include bypassing the discussion of democracy-related projects within Egyptian politics.  With the Israelis continuing their aggressive posturing towards the Palestinian government in the West Bank, and with Hamas continuing to advocate “armed-resistance” against Israeli soldiers and civilians, now is not the time for Obama’s Middle East team to alienate the only true non-partisan in the entire peace process.

Pressuring Mubarak into enacting domestic political reform should be the last thing on Obama’s mind.  Such a move would not only strain the invaluable relations existing between the United States and Egypt -ties that are extremely crucial in combating and/or limiting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions- but a decision that would severely degrade any hopes for a reasonably time-oriented peace in the Holy Land.  Alienating a mediator is never a good start to dialogue and cooperation.

In terms of President Obama’s own personal interests, talking about Egypt’s internal politics would essentially translate into a “shoot-yourself-in-the-foot” scenario.  If there is anything that can be said of Obama’s short tenure in the White House, it is that his administration has sacrificed a tremendous amount of political capital in the hopes of bolstering the prospect for the two-state solution:  a plan considered to be the only viable alternative to another 50 years of terrorist-related violence between the Jewish and Arab communities.  If Obama truly wishes to extend his presidency, and if the U.S. Government is really interested in modifying America’s image in one of the world’s most politically turbulent areas, sidetracking the “freedom agenda” may be his best option.

Is Egypt’s record on human rights disturbing?  Yes.  Is Hosni Mubarak considered one of the most repressive leaders in the modern world?  Absolutely.  But, at the same token, is Cairo an ally America can count on when Iranian-sponsored Islamic proxies spread to unprecedented levels?  Yes.  Is Mr. Mubarak committed to keeping secular values in Egyptian society, all the while cutting off support to Hamas through the enforcement of an arms embargo?  Without question.  With the pros of a Mubarak-relationship seemingly outweighing the cons, I hope Mr. Obama puts on a friendly-face and focuses exclusively on issues that both leaders can find common ground on.  Democracy promotion in the Middle East, while one of Washington’s unlimited hopes, should not dictate the meeting’s tone.  There is no reason to believe that a democratic Egypt would strengthen its resistance to Islamic terrorism.  Even if Mr. Mubarak decided to reform the political process in Egypt, such as invoking opposition parties and encouraging dissent, history proves that such a transformation would take an extremely large time to fully take effect.

Does a democratic Egypt really change things all that much?  Looking at other countries in the past decade that took a similar path to democracy (i.e. Vladimir Putin’s Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union), the answer should be straightforward regardless of ones position on the political spectrum:  talking about democracy and actually practicing its tenants are two radically different things.  An Egypt that emphasizes stability and secularism is much more significant to Washington’s security interests in the Middle East than an Egypt that stresses the fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Laura Rozen of ForeignPolicy.com contributed to this blog.  Her full article can be accessed at:  http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/08/17/mubarak_on_the_potomac

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