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Déjà Vu in Cairo

Lessons from 2005.

Everyone now understands that President Obama faces a set of difficult choices in Egypt. Cut Mubarak loose, and risk a revolt from the other American clients in the region while potentially empowering the Muslim Brotherhood. Support Mubarak, and earn the enmity of Arabs and Muslims across the Middle East who correctly see the United States working in tandem with the autocrats who repress them.

What has largely gone undiscussed, however, is that the United States faced a very similar dilemma in Egypt once before. Back in 2005, the Bush administration had to make more or less the same calculation. It’s worth revisiting that episode now, if only because it illustrates how difficult a time America has had arriving at an Egypt policy that is coherent, wise, and principled.

In his second inaugural address in January 2005, President Bush declared that America would no longer “tolerate oppression for the sake of stability.” Mubarak responded nine days later by charging the country’s leading opposition figure, Ayman Nour, with forgery. But, at least initially, the Bush administration did not blink. On June 30, Condoleezza Rice traveled to the American University in Cairo and delivered a speech outlining Bush’s freedom agenda. “The Egyptian Government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people—and to the entire world—by giving its citizens the freedom to choose,” she said. “Egypt’s elections, including the parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election.”

A few months later, in September, Mubarak waltzed to victory over Nour in a sham presidential election. But everyone had known, and accepted, that the presidential election was going to be a sham. Instead, it was the parliamentary elections, scheduled for November, that both Egyptian reformers and American democracy promoters pinned their hopes to. Because these elections would not result in Mubarak’s ouster, they offered a low-risk way for Egypt to begin to cultivate a civil and competitive politics. 

During the run-up to these elections, Egypt’s constellation of opposition parties took the promise that had been made by the United States seriously—and a culture of democratic politics began to develop where none had existed before. I lived in Cairo in 2005 and 2006 and attended political rallies where socialists, Islamists, and more democratic reformers distributed leaflets and gave speeches. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, not exactly a pro-western organization, was grateful to America. “When Secretary Rice delivered her speech saying it was for too long they have been helping dictators, well, that was a good thing,” Mohammed Habib, the organization’s political director, told me at the time. “This recognition was good for us.” Not surprisingly, the Brotherhood fared well once the voting got underway.

The first round of the elections was relatively free, but in the second and third rounds, the national police ambushed ballot stations and used tear gas on crowds of voters. Some supporters of opposition candidates took to climbing on ladders to the second floor of polling stations because the police had blocked the entrance on the first floor. In the face of this repression, the response from Washington was muted. The State Department spokesman at the time, Sean McCormack, said he had “seen the reports” of voter intimidation, but did not condemn the regime directly.

Meanwhile, Ayman Nour—who had run against Mubarak and lost in the bogus presidential election in September—was jailed on December 5 and later convicted. To get a sense of how craven the Bush administration was becoming on the issue of Egyptian democratization, consider a March 2006 event attended by Frank Ricciardone, then the U.S. ambassador to Cairo. The event was a “model American Congress,” where Egyptian students pretended to participate in the kind of meaningful legislature that was not offered in their own country. At the end of the event, Ricciardone was asked for his and the administration’s opinion of the imprisonment of Ayman Nour. His rambling response shows just how unwilling the administration was, by this point, to criticize Mubarak in any way: “Do you know I would actually like to ask all of you in this room that question? Because I bet if there are a hundred people, I bet I’d get a hundred different answers,” he said. “And I am genuinely interested in what Egyptians think, because at the end of the day, I think the important question is not what do Americans think about this and what it means for Egyptian democracy, but what do Egyptians think? What do Egyptians think that this means for the independence of the judiciary? When someone with a controversial personal history in politics and in journalism runs for public office, comes in second, and then is tried on charges and gets five years for forgery of documents. You know, if Egyptians are not sure what to make of this, then I hope you will forgive Americans for not understanding the complexity of this case.” (Ricciardone, by the way, was later appointed by Obama to become ambassador to Turkey.)

Meanwhile, when some independent judges tried to conduct an audit and write a report about charges of voter fraud and intimidation in the elections, the two judges leading the effort—Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki—were disbarred. The plight of the judges stirred protests in Cairo in May 2006. “All the people have lost trust in the intentions of the American administration,” Bastawisi told me that month, adding, “They give long speeches on reform in the region; they are backing the very regimes that are standing in the way of these reforms. Mainly we are depending on the Egyptian people.”

This past weekend, I spoke to two former Bush officials who were involved in setting Middle East policy at the time. Scott Carpenter, who in 2005 and 2006 was a deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of President Bush’s freedom agenda for the Middle East, said that, after the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first round of voting, “a combination of factors led us to blink” in the later rounds. Elliott Abrams, who oversaw the Middle East portfolio at the National Security Council, put it this way: “I do agree that, after the high water mark in 2005, the Bush administration backed away from pressing Mubarak hard enough on democratic reforms and human rights. I think this was mostly due to the mirage of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Once you fixate on that, the nation of Egypt disappears and all that matters is Mubarak and his diplomacy.”

Mubarak would go on to cancel local elections scheduled for 2006. In 2007, he amended Egypt’s constitution in such a way that the only viable candidate for the presidential elections scheduled this year would be either himself or his son. When Mubarak did these things, the response from the United States was again muted. “Mubarak knew where we stood on his regime and it’s no accident that he did not visit the U.S. in the Bush second term, not once—for Bush’s backing of democracy in Egypt offended him,” says Abrams. “But we did not use the public pressure we should have once we started thinking about what became Annapolis”—that is, the Bush administration’s attempt to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for which it needed Mubarak as an ally.

Of course, it’s understandable why the Bush administration had second thoughts about pushing forward with democratization in Egypt. Like Obama now, Bush was relying on despots across the Middle East to fight a war on terror. How could Bush simultaneously ask for favors from these leaders in the fight against Al Qaeda while also undermining them with his freedom agenda? What’s more, in January 2006, Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories, with disastrous results. What if free and fair elections in Egypt had ended with the Muslim Brotherhood in control of parliament? This would not exactly been a welcome outcome. And yet, has six more years of completely authoritarian rule by Mubarak benefited either average Egyptians or, for that matter, the United States? Clearly not.

Today, the dilemmas facing U.S. policymakers are roughly the same ones the Bush administration faced back then. It’s clear in retrospect that Bush’s turn away from his freedom agenda in Egypt did not lead to particularly good results. Would the alternative have spurred a better outcome? We may soon find out.

Eli Lake is a contributing editor for The New Republic.