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Bush’s Double-Talk Fits Mubarak’s Egypt
Bush’s Double-Talk Fits Mubarak’s Egypt
Egypt has lost its luster as America’s Middle East wrangler for peace and business deals. Now it’s a touristy backwater - and a perfect photo-op for Bush to praise his brand of ’civil society’, says Mona Eltahawy.
Saturday, January 19,2008 09:52
by Mona Eltahawy Middle East Online

Egypt has lost its luster as America"s Middle East wrangler for peace and business deals. Now it"s a touristy backwater - and a perfect photo-op for Bush to praise his brand of "civil society", says Mona Eltahawy.

The first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, once prided itself for being the de facto leader of the Middle East. Now, it has become a vacation backdrop for visiting dignitaries whose attention and business deals are increasingly shifting elsewhere -- to the booming economies of the newly influential Arab Gulf kingdoms and emirates.

Over the Christmas holiday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy went sightseeing in Egypt with new girlfriend, supermodel Carla Bruni, and this coupling drew much more attention than the one with Hosni Mubarak. Then last week, in the United Arab Emirates, Sarkozy made headlines not for his love life but for signing deals with the Emiratis to build France’s first military base in the Gulf and to help them develop civilian nuclear energy -- this latter, he also promised the Saudis on a trip to Riyadh (where orders came for Nicolas to leave Carla at home).

The most recent reminder of Egypt’s diminished role in regional politics came when President George W. Bush ended his Middle East trip by pausing in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

He thanked Mubarak six times and used the word “appreciate” 10 times. But sweet words don"t hide simple math: Bush spent just three hours in Egypt -- an afterthought compared to the two days he had just spent in Saudi Arabia, where he delivered a major arms sale, and sword-danced with the relatives of Saudi King Abdullah.

Bush praised Mubarak for Egypt’s “vibrant civil society.” He seemed to have forgotten meeting civil rights activist and Mubarak critic, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who has been in self-imposed exile for almost a year. Bush and Ibrahim met in Prague in 2007, and the American president had identified with Ibrahim, saying of himself, "I, too, am a “dissident" in the White House.

Bush"s rhetorical juxtapositions to Mubarak and Ibrahim serve as a clear guide to his double-talk on democracy.

Ibrahim, the real dissident, faces at least 20 court cases if he returns to Egypt, where he spent two years in jail after a politically motivated trial. The cases were raised by pro-regime lawyers and supporters because Ibrahim had urged Washington to make its aid package to Egypt conditional on Cairo’s respect for human rights.

Mubarak"s government receives about $2 billion in annual U.S. aid, including $1.3 billion in military assistance. Some initial concessions to reform and democracy were adopted in 2005, under American and domestic pressure from newly resurgent opposition groups. There is a ways to go, however, to gain "civil society."

If Bush had spent more than three hours in Egypt, he might have noticed Mubarak’s thugs doling out "civil society." The day after Bush"s visit, Abdel Wahhab el-Messiri and his colleagues were taking part in a protest in Cairo, and the 70-year-old leader of the opposition Kefaya movement was taken by police and dumped in a desert suburb about 12 miles (20 km) out of town.

On Sunday, Bush said in the United Arab Emirates what he should have said standing next to Mubarak in Egypt on Wednesday: "You cannot build trust when you hold an election in which opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison." Bush was referring to Ayman Nour, Mubarak’s main opponent in Egypt’s first contested presidential elections in September 2005.

Nour has been in prison since the end of 2005 after another politically-motivated trial aimed at removing the popular parliamentarian from politics as Mubarak grooms his son Gamal to take over.

In the UAE, Bush offered lame praise to the Arab Gulf’s various emirs, princes and royals who pay lip service to democracy through ineffectual municipal elections. They have become Bush"s new best friends because Washington views them as the bulwark against Iran’s nuclear ambitions -- and the Saudis as a Sunni heavyweight to help realign Iraq’s sectarian fragmentation.

But there was a time when Cairo was the first step on all Middle East roads -- especially the one leading to Jerusalem. As the first Arab state at peace with Israel, Egypt was the only country talking openly to all sides in the decades-long Middle East conflict. When Israel and the PLO began their own peace talks, Cairo hosted many rounds and mediated among the various Palestinian factions.

Now Saudi Arabia’s Arab-Israeli peace plan has become the template and Egypt’s main role in the conflict seems to be only as Southern border policeman of Gaza.

Egypt’s diminished role is no surprise considering that Mubarak has been in power for 26 years. His regime is tired, self-serving, and lacking in new ideas.

But the thick skin of longevity will ensure it will survive this week"s snub from Bush -- the fourth president to occupy the White House since Mubarak assumed power at the end of 1981.

Whether Americans elect their first woman, black man, or Mormon president later this year, it seems one Mubarak or another will be waiting to receive them.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

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