Ever since 9/11 President Bush has peppered his State of the Union speeches, and most other foreign policy discussions, with references to his goal of spreading democracy to the Middle East, and Iraq in particular. Well, we now know that the Iraq Democracy Project has proven a bit harder than anticipated, what with the civil war and anti-occupation sentiments of most of the population outside of the Kurdish north. But surely some other countries in the region where there isn't a civil war or US occupation should be a bit more amenable to democracy, no? Take for example Egypt, traditionally the second largest recipient of foreign aid after Israel (although the war on terror has pushed Iraq, Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan into the lead). But still, with tens of billions of dollars invested into the government of Hosni Mubarak, you'd think the US government could buy a little democracy?
Almost two years ago Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a lecture at the American University in Cairo that came to symbolize the Bush Administration's desire--rhetorically at least--for democratic change in Egypt. The Egyptian government, she told her audience of students and activists, must respect the rule of law, the will of its citizens, and move--albeit gradually--towards greater democracy.
Last week the Secretary returned to Egypt, but this time there was no mention of democracy or even of a hint of criticism at the growing repression since her last visit. Instead, the Secretary heaped praise on the country's autocratic rulers for their support of American foreign policy in the region. "Stability, not democracy" is once again America's priority in the Middle East. I guess the President is too busy managing Iraq's transition to democracy to worry about Egypt's.
Truth be told, the Administration democracy agenda never went beyond nice words, so its demise will change little on the ground in Egypt, or the Arab world more broadly. But I wonder, if instead of parlaying with the country's geriatric autocrats Secretary Rice could have met the young Egyptians I spent time only a few weeks before her visit, would she have so easily betrayed their dreams, and with them what little good will the average Egyptian still has towards the United States?
If she had taken the time to watch the the videos I was shown by Egyptian friends (which are now circulating on the internet) of the young bus driver, Imad el-Kabir, being sodomized with a broomstick by the police, or the still nameless woman beaten while suspended upside down between two chairs, could she have stood next to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and thanked him for his government's help "on issues of common interest?"
If she could have spent an hour with the members of the burgeoning heavy metal scene, many of whose members are sons (or daughters) of generals and diplomats, would she understand why these children of the elite have given up on the hope of political change? Why some are so scared that they won't even allow me to publish the names of the bands for fear the mukhabarat, or security services, might think they have political implications? Would the billions of dollars the US bestows on Egypt each year in payment for its government's half-hearted support for our military and diplomatic adventures still seem worth it?
If she had met with Egypt's leading bloggers, or activists with the Kefaya (Enough! In Arabic) movement, she would have learned of the "pinpoint violence" deployed by the government to silence political opposition and censor the internet, even as President Mubarak brags about the new wired cities he's building in the desert for Egypt's elite. Would Secretary Rice still consider Egypt a model for progress and stability in the Middle East?
I could have introduced her to the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Cairo branch, who would have explained that Sayid Qutb, the Salafis and al-Azhar led the Brotherhood astray from its cultured beginnings, and argued that "what we need to combat the militants are more freedom of speech, more trained judges, more human rights." Or invited her to coffee with the editor of the Brotherhood's website, 20 years his junior, who declared that "if I fight just for myself and my rights, then I'll never get them. Only if and when I'm ready to fight for everyone's rights can I hope to have my full rights as a religious Muslim in Egypt."
Then again, he might have asked the Secretary for her help to confront the regime; "not to impose shari'a or wage jihad against the West or Israel, but to bring real democracy and social justice to Egypt." So perhaps it's better she didn't meet him.
Most of all, I wish Secretary Rice could have joined me for my late night chat at the home of Shady and Nour, the teenage sons of jailed presidential candidate Ayman Nour, who is still rotting in jail despite (or perhaps because of) the tepid show of support for him by the State Department. The two boys have dealt with the ordeal of their father's arrest, trial and imprisonment by forming one of the best up and coming metal bands in Egypt. "It helps us deal with the anger since our father's arrest, and to convert it to useful forms."
The government warned the senior Nour that it might arrest Shady and Nour as Satanists--in 1997 well over a hundred musicians and fans were arrested under similar charges--if he wasn't more cooperative. The reason they are so threatening is that Shady and Nour represent a powerful alternative identity, and through it, future for Egypt--at once fully Egyptian, Arab and Muslim (unlike most metal heads the world over, they are openly religious); yet fully engaged and comfortable with Western, and specifically American, culture and ideals.
I wish Secretary Rice could have seen the face of their mother, Gamilla, when I met her at 3 in the morning as she returned home, exhausted but defiant, from another long night researching a story on government corruption. If the Secretary understood how Gemilla splits her time between fighting for her husband's release, fighting corruption as an investigative journalist, and videotaping her sons' concerts from the mosh pit, I wonder if she'd be so quick to authorize the next $2 billion in aid to the Mubarak government. It's a good thing she didn't meet her either.
In her public remarks at the end of her trip, Secretary of State Rice once again declared that United States "greatly values... [the] important strategic relationship" with Egypt, and even thanked President Mubarak "for spending so much time with me." Such craven coddling of one of the world's oldest and most authoritarian regimes while Ayman Nour, Imad el-Kabir and untold other Egyptians remain behind bars is morally unconscionable. And it confirms al-Qae'da's argument that the US continues to care not a wit about the human and political rights of ordinary Muslims.
In his cave somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Osama bin Laden is surely smiling.