From Michele Dunne
President Bush’s January 16 stop in Egypt was so short that the press kept forgetting to mention it in discussing the schedule for his Middle East trip, noting that he would spend the last two days in Saudi Arabia. President Mubarak found an opportunity to zing Bush early in their joint press conference, interjecting in reply to Bush’s compliment about the beauty of Sharm el-Sheikh that “you need much more days.” Bush laughed and acknowledged that Mubarak “wants me back”—but did not immediately accept the invitation, as the President did on the spot when the Israelis invited him to return in May.
Bush seemed to try to compensate for the shortness of his stop with the fullness of his public statement, a virtual tour d’horizon of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. Repeatedly highlighting the strength of U.S.-Egyptian friendship and American respect for Egyptian history and culture, Bush thanked Mubarak for cooperation on counterterrorism, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and Lebanon. He then transitioned rather gracefully to nudging on democracy issues, noting “Egypt’s role in the world,” “vibrant civil society,” and the important role played by women. Bush praised the roles played by Egyptian “pioneering journalists,” bloggers, and “judges insisting on independence,” and voiced hope that the Egyptian government would “give the people of this pround nation a greater voice in your future.” Politely phrased, but the message undoubtedly got through.
Both the brevity of Bush’s stop and the content of his statement reflect the malaise that has afflicted U.S.-Egyptian relations for nearly a decade now, going back to the end of the Clinton administration, when Egypt received its share of the blame for the failed peace process. Mubarak has increasingly disliked the U.S. approach to the region since then, and U.S. leaders—in the Congress as well as the White House—have come to see Mubarak as an aging leader who is only minimally helpful on regional issues and a laggard when it comes to reform in his own country. The 30-year old U.S.-Egyptian partnership has always had two legs: strategic and diplomatic cooperation in the region, and U.S. support for liberalization (first economic, later political) inside Egypt. While the two countries’ regional goals are still reasonably in sync, the partnership will continue to suffer until there is better mutual agreement on where Egypt’s reform process is going and how the United States can support it.
On the broader issue of Bush’s apparent effort during this trip to revive his freedom agenda (on life support since mid-2006), the Egypt statement is the best he has done. His January 13 speech in Abu Dhabi had some bright spots—the new pairing of freedom and justice as central concepts is positive, though coming too late in this administration to do much good—but the UAE venue made it hard to take the speech seriously. Not only did Bush not breathe a word publicly in Saudi Arabia about the freedom agenda, but he made the mistake of praising Bahraini King Hamad for being “on the forefront of providing hope for people through democracy” and holding “two free elections since 2006.” One can imagine how the Bahraini liberals, cheated out of their parliamentary victories in the totally unmonitored 2006 elections, felt hearing that. Bush could certainly have praised Bahraini military cooperation while gently mentioning the importance of equal rights for citizens and a level political playing field. Even omitting the issue altogether would have been better than offering unqualified praise, which made the United States look either clueless or cynical about what goes on in Bahrain.
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