The news went largely unreported, so you may have missed it, but last week the editor of a newspaper in Cairo was sentenced to six months in prison for spreading “false information… damaging the public interest and national stability” by reporting that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in a coma. The judge in the case said the report, by Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Egypt’s Al-Dustour, caused panic among foreign investors and threatened Egypt’s economy.
This case is unremarkable given the recent history of Egypt’s contempt for press freedom – in fact, for all the freedoms we Americans still regard as our inalienable rights. It is arguably more remarkable in that, if the test of “spreading false information” were applied to American journalists, building more jails would be a higher priority than building new homes for Katrina victims.
That said, however, the news of Mr. Eissa’s conviction gives us yet another example of the embarrassing double standards built into US foreign policy. Our State Department produces an annual report on human rights abuses around the world, but neglects to assess our own performance. So Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, renditions and waterboarding, are absent. Instead, the Bush Administration continues to bury us in empty bromides about democracy promotion.
But the democracy-promotion mantra didn’t start with George W. Bush. It started as long ago as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It was significantly ratcheted up during the Cold War administration of President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), when the US policy of Soviet containment made friends of the enemies of our enemy.
In 1982, Reagan told the British Parliament of a "democratic revolution" gathering force around the globe. Reagan announced that the US would “foster the infrastructure of democracy" — a free press, independent unions, truly representative political parties, and the many other institutions essential to a functioning democracy.
Bush 41, considered a foreign policy “realist,” continued the theme, though somewhat less stridently. And the Clinton Administration espoused much the same themes during the 1990s to make its case for our embrace of globalization.
But post-9/11, the Bush Administration raised the promotion of democracy and freedom – particularly in the Middle East -- to a historically higher rhetorical priority. In his second inaugural address, Bush said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Bush said the "resentment and tyranny" in which "whole regions of the world" were now immersed had come to breed new forms of violence that "raise a mortal threat" because Islamic fundamentalism endangered American security.
So, he said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Bush administration officials say they have used diplomatic pressure, foreign aid and the architecture established by Reagan to help nurture democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. Bush also said the democratic transformation of the Middle East would begin with regime change in Iraq.
But Bush outdid Reagan: He went for a twofer: The US would continue to talk up freedom and democracy while enlisting other nations to help fight the ‘global war on terror.’ It is now clear that in Dubya’s world, counter-terrorism trumps democracy promotion, rhetoric notwithstanding. And it is precisely that juxtaposition of goals that now finds us in bed with most of the world’s most repressive regimes – many of the same countries we wooed during the Cold War.
Egypt was one of them. In the 1950s, both the Soviet Union and the Western powers offered aid to Egypt to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. But Egypt chose to buy weapons from the communist government of Czechoslovakia, and the West canceled its offer. Later, it would become a more dependable Cold War partner for the US. And – from a war on terror standpoint – the Bush Administration has considered it a dependable partner ever since.
Today, Egypt receives $2 billion a year, including $1.3 billion in military assistance from the U.S. annually – second only to the sum awarded to Israel.
The Bush Administration considers Egypt a key ally against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, a once-violent opposition group that has since renounced terror and has numerous representatives in the Egyptian parliament – serving as independents, because the government won’t recognize the Brotherhood as a legitimate political party.
The US also considers Egypt – the first Arab nation to recognize Israel and establish full diplomatic relations – as critical to its peace-seeking agenda for a Palestinian state, though to date there is little evidence that it has much real influence on the process.
Currently, Egypt is said to be in secret talks to reach some kind of accommodation with the leadership of Hamas. And, as David Ignatius pointed out in Sunday’s Washington Post, there has been no outcry of opposition from the US or the Israelis.
The bottom line in this complex relationship is that US aid to Egypt has continued without major interruption despite what many see as toothless criticisms by the Bush Administration of the iron-fisted 30-year rule of Egypt’s aging autocrat, Hosni Mubarak.