Just under two years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in
Cairo, delivered her most stirring call for democracy in the Middle
East and promised that the era of US support for dictatorships was
For 60 years, the US "pursued stability at the expense of
democracy," she said, and had "achieved neither. Now, we are taking
a different course." She stated that opposition groups "must be free
to assemble, and to participate."
Yet today, the policy toward Egypt - which gets about $2 billion
a year in US aid - and other allies in the region looks much like
those of the previous US administrations that Ms. Rice repudiated.
Back in Egypt on Sunday, a day before the regime of President
Hosni Mubarak is expected to pass constitutional amendments that
will bar the most popular opposition group from participation and
reduce independent oversight of an electoral system riddled with
fraud, Rice expressed disappointment, but indicated the US will do
little in response.
"The process of reform ... is difficult. It's going to have its
ups and downs,'' she told reporters. "It's not a matter to try to
dictate to Egypt how this will unfold."
At the moment, what's unfolding is a major step back from
President Mubarak's campaign promises to open up the system. Last
week, the parliament that his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)
controls approved 34 amendments to Egypt's constitution and hastily
scheduled a referendum on the changes for Monday.
Opponents say that the timing makes mounting an effective
opposition impossible. The date was set by presidential decree.
Key changes include the removal of independent judicial oversight
of elections in favor of an election monitoring commission that will
be created along guidelines laid out later by parliament. The
changes also ban any party organized around religion, a measure
designed to bar the Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular opposition
movement. Allies of the regime say that the measure will preserve
the secular character of the state.
The motivation for the amendments, charges Rabab al-Mehdi, a
professor at the American University in Cairo and a democracy
activist, is to "facilitate the ascendancy of Gamal Mubarak to power
and ... to curtail the potential rise of any strong confrontational
Gamal Mubarak is the president's son, and his meteoric rise in
the NDP has led many Egyptians to presume that he is his father's
Analysts say that a number of factors have conspired to cause the
US to back away from its former uncompromising democracy rhetoric:
its urgent need to stabilize Iraq, the desire to drum up support to
find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, discomfort with
the fact that most of the region's opposition movements have a
strong Islamist tinge, and worries about containing Iran.
Meanwhile, regimes like Egypt's are making changes that amount to
a more sophisticated version of the closed politics they've long