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December 28, 2005

Egypt’s White House ''Gift''

Roy Meachum

On Christmas Day, Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak tore a page from Middle East history and presented the Bush White House a “gift” that on any other day would have provoked a media storm – at the least.

Readers who remember the late President Anwar Sadat’s surprise assault across the Suez Canal, in 1973, might call it the Yom Kippur War, as it struck on the holiest of Jewish feast days.

For Muslims, it’s the Ramadan War, because it came on the 10th day of Islam’s most sacred month, when believers must fast from all food and water during the daylight hours: the Quran sets the standard at the moment when black and white threads can be told apart.

And that’s precisely why the October War, to the rest of us, came as such a shock to Israel and its friends, including Washington, which was rejoicing in President Sadat’s expulsion of the last of the once formidable Soviet military contingent on the Nile. (Sadat’s move to ensure surprise.)

Despite numerous United Nations resolutions, Tel Aviv had hung on to land seized during the Six-Day War 17 years before, including the entire east bank of the Canal, which badly crippled Egypt’s always tottering economy.

While yielding to political pressure, Lyndon Johnson’s initially considered, in 1967, holding Tel Aviv to account and follow predecessor Dwight Eisenhower’s example, which forced Israel to retreat to its 1948 borders. Richard Nixon joined John Kennedy in acquiescing to the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

The 20th century’s unlikeliest president, Jimmy Carter, received the world’s highest award, the Nobel Peace Prize, belatedly presented for 2002; his greatest single accomplishment was removing the threat of direct conflict between Israel and Egypt, the largest Arab nation.

Living in Cairo in the aftermath of Camp David’s historic accords, which Mr. Carter hammered out between President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, I witnessed the first flood of American largesse pouring into the impoverished country.

At this writing, despite the untold amounts of private investments that followed Camp David, Egypt continues to rake in upwards of $2 billion from U.S. taxpayers, which many Muslims consider U.S. bribes to make Mr. Mubarak toe the White House line when it comes to Middle East policies. But not in domestic matters.

While Washington boasts the Egyptian president is America’s “best friend,” Mr. Mubarak continues to implement a political agenda that seriously undermines George W. Bush’s hope of bringing democracy to the region, especially Iraq.

The man, who like Gamal Nasser and Mr. Sadat before him, reached his Cairo palace as a career military officer, shows, instead, he will likely yield his country’s 80 millions to the rule of Islamic extremists.

In his own way, former General Mubarak has chosen the example of the last shah, Riza Pahlevi, whose brutal totalitarianism directly paved the way for Iran’s rigid theocracy ruled by ayatollahs, whose counterparts are the leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

In his latest contribution to the advancement of Islamic extremism, Mr. Mubarak sanctioned, if he did not directly order, a five year sentence for Ayman Nour, identified by The New York Times as “a parliamentary leader for 10 years.”

Had he been content to rest on the Cairo legislature’s back benches, a member of the totally impotent opposition, he could have comfortably passed Christmas celebrating with Coptic friends, Egypt’s Christian minority.

Mr. Nour certainly knew he was inviting retaliation when he chose to become his El Ghad (Tomorrow) party’s candidate in the country’s recent balloting.

As had been true since Mr. Nasser led his Free Officers Movement’s revolution that ousted King Farouk, the incumbent president won going away. El Ghad’s nominee was able to muster only seven percent of the vote, which put him first among the also-rans.

With Mr. Mubarak’s victory a given, most Egyptians didn’t bother to show up at the polls, except for the Islamists who provided the Muslim Brotherhood a dramatic increase in parliamentary seats, although its candidates were forced to campaign generally as independents. The Brotherhood has been outlawed since the days of monarchy, when Farouk’s father still sat on the throne.

For his temerity in challenging the new pharaoh, Mr. Nour was sentenced, ironically on Christmas day, to serve five years in prison, which made him ineligible to run again for any political office, especially the presidency. That’s not how his indictment read, of course.

By the same court that four years ago jailed Nile nation’s foremost advocate for democracy, Saad Ibrahim, on the charge of defaming Egypt, Mr. Nour was condemned to five years behind bars for supposedly forging 1,000 names on the petition that created El Ghad.

The dirty trick becomes absolutely transparent when you know a mere 50 signatures are required by law to form any political party. His followers say the forgeries were inserted by Mr. Mubarak’s police to discredit not only Mr. Nour but all of Egypt’s secular opposition.

The reason? Ask any Egyptian. It’s so secret. The president wants to guarantee his family’s succession by handing over the office to his son named for Mr. Nasser: Gamal Mubarak.

Washington seems determined to bring the palace coup about by refusing to use its muscle on behalf of the democratic opposition. True, Washington enabled Mr. Ibrahim to regain his freedom after a short time in the country’s filthy penal system.

And the White House press office turned away from the Christmas tree long enough to deplore the verdict and the inflicting of five years of hard labor on Mr. Nour. That’s all, so far.

Mr. Mubarak suffered no thundering demands from the Oval Office that he must provide an example to his Arabic counterparts. Nor were any expected. Mr. Bush is no General Eisenhower.

As long as the United States desperately needs Egypt’s president to do more than merely splutter opposition to America’s Iraq adventure, Cairo’s dictator knows he’s perfectly free to do anything he chooses, at home.

You can be sure that Mr. Mubarak and his advisers knowingly selected Christmas for delivering the message that democracy is a dead issue in Cairo, as a favor to Mr. Bush.

Lifting their heads rarely to pay attention to anything that takes place in that part of the world, Americans, by and large, have absolutely no time in this season for anything that does not directly affect them. And, after all, their reasoning goes Arabs will be Arabs. What does that have to do with us?

For the moment, George W. Bush and the nation are free to ignore the situation, which suits the Muslim Brotherhood even better than the ruling Mubarak family.

Looking at what’s happening, Islamists know it’s only a matter of time until present policies will give them the goal they have sought for nearly a century.

Through the destruction of a secular political movement, the world’s largest Arabic nation is on a direct track to become the Sunni counterpart of Shiite Iran.

That’s no prediction but simply recognition of the inevitable result of Hosny Mubarak’s tactics, including the beatings and slayings committed at polling stations in recent months by his police whose salaries are paid by U.S. taxpayers.

As my Egyptian friends say: Ya houssarah! What a shame!

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