Gorbachev on the Nile?
By Jackson Diehl
Washington Post - Monday, February 10, 2003; Page A21
Although most of the capital was too preoccupied with Iraq to notice, last week another potential Middle Eastern regime change was quietly moving forward in Washington. It appeared in the form of Gamal Mubarak -- son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and, for the first time, leader of an official delegation received at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.
Many Egyptians believe that the two Mubaraks are engaged in a tricky maneuver. They are trying to execute a handoff of power from the 74-year-old father to the 39-year-old son in a country that calls itself a constitutional republic, and at a time when the United States -- provider of Egypt's economic lifeline -- has committed itself to promoting a democratic transformation of the Middle East. Some doubt that Mubarak has made a final decision to promote his son, or that he could persuade his army to accept him. But if he has, the strategy has been pretty straightforward: Gamal has been sold to Egypt's intelligentsia as a progressive, the only hope for those who yearn to ease decades of stifling state socialism and de facto dictatorship. Many have been won over. Those who persist in calling a dynasty a dynasty are censored -- or thrown in jail.
Now comes what looks a lot like the pitch to Washington -- where, the Egyptians note with satisfaction, a son has already succeeded his father as president. In the past few weeks, the Mubaraks quietly delivered on much of what Cairo perceives as the American wish list, starting with the release of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian American pro-democracy activist. Palestinian militants were corralled in Cairo for much-delayed talks on ending violence against Israelis; official denunciations were issued of the anti-Semitism that is rife in Egypt's government-controlled press; President Mubarak called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and suggested a talk; and, just before departing for the United States, Gamal Mubarak oversaw the flotation of the Egyptian pound, an economic reform sought for years, if not decades, by the Agency for International Development.
Gamal then appeared at the White House to lunch with Condoleezza Rice and chat with Vice President Cheney; at the Pentagon to see Paul Wolfowitz; at the State Department to see Richard Armitage; at a couple of think tanks and at The Post. He is tall and gangly but handsome; his English, honed at the Bank of America, is flawless; his intelligence and polish undeniable. Much of what he says is what American officials, like liberal Egyptians, long to hear: that he is determined to introduce free markets into the state-dominated economy, that he wants to expand trade, that he wants to bring young Egyptians into politics. "Obviously the world around us is changing," he says. "My challenge is to open the doors of the party more and more to encourage young Egyptians that have the desire to be part of that process of change."
The suggestion is of a Gorbachev on the Nile, a leader who will work to modernize a rotting political and economic system from within. The Bush administration seems to find this tempting as well as troubling. Gamal, the thinking goes, looks like an improvement on his father and might do more to drag the country into the 21st century; on the other hand, he is proof that his father's political system has failed to produce real alternatives.
That's the hitch: Democracy just wouldn't figure in this Egyptian transition. It's not only the dynastic succession (Gamal bluntly remarked that reform of the undemocratic system of selecting presidents was "not on the agenda"); it's that the younger Mubarak has adopted his father's Orwellian practice of flatly stating the opposite of what everybody knows about his country. "In terms of a lot of the pillars of a free pluralistic society, in terms of dissent, in terms of argument and counter-argument, in terms of disagreement, in terms of elections on many levels, whether on the local level or the national level, we've come a long way," he says earnestly. Listening to him, you'd never know that Freedom House ranks Egypt as "not free" in its latest survey, with scores of 6 out of a possible low of 7 on civil liberties and civil rights; or that even the State Department, in its last report, said that Egyptians "do not have a meaningful ability to change their government."
The rhetoric soars even higher when Gamal is asked about numerous reports -- by the State Department, among others -- that criticism of the president or the possible dynasty is the easiest way to get the attention of Egypt's censors and prosecutors. "Absurd," he insists. "It has never been, since the president came to power, that any writer or opposition forces, or any civil rights activist, have been subjected to any kind of legal proceedings because of a political opinion, even if it has to do with the president."
It will be several years, at least, before the Mubaraks would attempt their swap. Should the Bush administration encourage it, the United States conceivably could end up with an ally in Cairo about whom Gamal's assertions are true -- which would be major progress. Or it could spend the next couple of decades listening with quiet exasperation, as it does now, to a dictator's farcical protestations that his country is free.