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February 21, 2006

One More Major Blunder

Roy Meachum

Washington seems no less intent than Jerusalem and Cairo when it comes to hastening along the handing over the Middle East to radical Muslims. President Hosni Mubarak's handling of the recent Egyptian elections furnished a blueprint for the disaster.

Ignoring totally the world community's advice, Mr. Mubarak has been virtually open in supporting his son to become his successor, posing the imminent possibility of the destruction of the pallid form of democracy that now exists. Let us be clear: neither Gamal Nasser nor Anwar Sadat, the republic's first presidents, tolerated the notion of allowing voters a real choice.

In the years I worked in Egypt, elections were rigged; it was not at all unusual for Mr. Sadat to receive over 97 percent; the lack of absolute support came as a pro forma demonstration for the regime's western-style democracy, which fooled no one.

Under great pressure from Washington, forced to demonstrate an alleged willingness to reform by Mr. Mubarak, a number of names were permitted on last fall's ballots. No opposition candidate gathered more than Aymun Nour's seven percent support and the Kifayeh leader's temerity in daring to mount the challenge puts him in peril of spending miserable time in the nation's particularly sordid penal system.

The charge was patently a set-up: he was accused of forging 1,000 signatures on a petition to register his party, when only 50 were necessary. Egypt's sparse pro-democracy movement accuses the government of altering the petition by replacing legitimate names with forgeries.

Yet we are told the White House's grand design for bringing representative government to the region depends absolutely on Cairo's dedication to reform, swapping oligarchy for a system minimally responsive to the people, poor and rich. The U.S. $50 billion investment, over the past 30 years, as many know, simply propped up a dictatorship, which differs only slightly from Iraq's Saddam Hussein's tour.

Actually, the situation is much worse. In his rush to castrate the Western-style, secularist opposition, Mr. Mubarak has opened wide the door for the reviled Muslim Brotherhood, whose opposition to Egypt's status quo extends back over 60 years. The Islamist organization was first banned by the long-departed king, at the behest of occupying power Great Britain.

In the years since, the Brotherhood survived persecution that nearly brought about its obliteration; its roaring comeback was first signaled by the growing number of Cairo's women adopting purdah, which demands wearing covering from head-to-toe; in some instances, gloves complete the isolation from others' eyes, especially men's.

This happened as the direct result of President Sadat's campaign to improve relations with the outside world, particularly Israel. His success brought billions to Egypt and created millions of jobs for a country whose population continues to soar. "Ma'alesh," as my friend and driver Farouk used to say. Never mind.

Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafy posted a standing offer of a reward for Mr. Sadat's alleged blasphemy in dealing with the hated non-Muslims; I was in Cairo when several attempts failed, usually aborted by police sting operations. He was eventually murdered by what was described as an "Islamic fanatic," Egyptian authorities' usual code for the Brotherhood.

Spurred by the current regime's corruption, its close alliance with America and undeterred scare tactics by the national police and Mr. Mubarak's bought-and paid-for supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood scored an impressive gain in the nation's new parliament, positioning itself as the likely successor to the ruling party.

Meanwhile, Washington has damned the illusion of democracy in the region by joining Israel in vetoing Palestinians' elections, which handed their legislature over to the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its Arabic acronym HAMAS.

Founded 25 years ago, the organization generated instant and widespread popularity among its people by a system of clean hospitals that turned no one away, new schools that replaced decayed facilities and launching social services that spread hope, especially in the detainment camps. It essentially filled a void left by the Palestine Liberation Organization's incestuous corruption that filled its members' pockets while leaving little left over for anyone else.

These are the reasons Hamas won the recent elections. People felt free to abandon the traditional Palestinian Liberation Organization because Yasser Arafat's death released them from the necessity of supporting a man many hated but felt obliged not to abandon. They would not walk away in face of Washington and Jerusalem's efforts to destroy the man reduced to no more than a symbol.

A similar result can be expected by the Israeli-American push to target the election's winners, on the basis of past terrorist acts and their insistence on retaining the founding principle calling for Israel to vanish back into the sea.

However distasteful, the White House's past statements oblige Washington to accept the legally expressed will of the Palestinian people, or lose totally all ultimate hopes of bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Israel has every right to hope Hamas, given its new-found legitimacy, will clean up its act and abandon violence, if only for the sake of improving its people's situation; given the organization's record, it is virtually impossible to believe the post-election strutting and protests of toughness are anything more than the boasting so very common in that culture.

Instantly and completely rejecting the Palestinians' choice guarantees the further loss of Israeli life and property, while projecting great hypocrisy from a nation whose existence owes much to Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Both former prime ministers belonged to groups that deserve placing among the region's most effective terrorists.

While he was head of the now defunct Irgun Tzvai-Leumi, Mr. Begin oversaw routine abductions and executions of British soldiers, physical beatings and murder of Palestinian families, to encourage their flight, and, most spectacularly, the bombing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel.

The 1946 attack on what was then England's headquarters in the Holy Land killed 91, including 17 Jews. It also hastened London's decision to abandon what had been, in any case, land seized primarily to protect the Suez Canal.

Mr. Shamir's most famous role in what was then known as the Stern Gang came with the assassination of United Nation envoy Count Folke Bernadotte and his French aide; they died because of the count's recommendations that the first truce in the 1948 conflict be used to restore Palestinians to their former homes and maintaining Jerusalem as a neutral city, under United Nations' aegis. Earlier, there had been the Cairo murder of Lord Moyne, Winston Churchill's Word War II colonial secretary.

Looking no further than its own history should teach Israel that yesterday's terrorist can become tomorrow's statesman. In the event, this week's program to penalize the Palestinians, withholding taxes and squeezing other fund sources, is guaranteed to backfire.

The Arabs' 700 years ruling the Hibernian Peninsula, more than anything else, created machismo, the combination of overweening pride and great stubbornness that can make Spaniards difficult, and sometimes impossible, people. The failure to understand how much the quality still lives in the modern Middle East has much to do with the official underestimation of Iraqis.

The world should not be forced to deal with yet one more major blunder; too many mothers and fathers have buried their children, victims of egregious error and personal agendas on the part of people who simply walk away when reality puts on the squeeze, an all too-common happening in that particular neighborhood.

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