illustration - Amos Biderman - February 1 2011
Illustration Photo by Amos Biderman
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Two years ago, I met Dr. Hala Mustafa, the editor-in-chief of Democracy Review, published by the Al-Ahram group, at a cafe on the shore of the Nile. Nissan Amdur, then Israel's deputy ambassador to Egypt, also attended the meeting. I was quite surprised that an Egyptian journalist would sit openly (and with her hair uncovered ) with an Israeli diplomat and an Israeli journalist. Mustafa gave me a copy of an interview she'd given to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dostor, in which she accused the Egyptian government of embracing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with one hand while stroking Hamas with the other. She didn't spare Mubarak any criticism when it came to his difficulties understanding the rules of democracy.

Mustafa told us that she had never visited Israel because the Egyptian government does not look kindly on such trips, and it could affect her position. I assumed that for the same reason she would prefer that I keep her remarks to myself. She surprised me a second time when she encouraged me to publish them. I did as she told me and reported the conversation briefly in these pages. The final surprise arrived in a message from the Egyptian embassy: Mustafa categorically denied criticizing the government to me. I was glad that Amdur, the deputy ambassador, had not taken my hint and had remained with us throughout nearly the entire meeting.

This story illustrates something about the complexity of modern Egypt. On the one hand, an Egyptian journalist snipes at the regime and shares her displeasure at the president's policies with an Israeli colleague. On the other hand, she does not dare visit Israel for fear of losing her job.

The ability to make a living is not something taken completely for granted by young Egyptians. A Russian colleague I met in Beijing at the end of the Glasnost era offered me a spot-on analysis of regimes undergoing transition, explaining why the Chinese had behaved more wisely than the Soviets in this regard. "They understand," he said, "that before the government allows people to open their mouths, they must first ensure that they have a little food to put in them." His conclusion was that democratic reform unaccompanied by economic reform is a recipe for anarchy.

Mubarak did not manage to provide jobs for millions of young Egyptians. Nonetheless, generations of American governments have demanded that - despite Egypt's Third World standard of living - he adhere to the accepted Western norms of human rights. The aid that more than 80 million Egyptians receive from the United States is less than what slightly more than 7 million Israelis receive. In 2002, the State Department, under the Bush administration, launched the Middle East Partnership Initiative with much fanfare. The fund was meant to advance economic and democratic projects in civil societies in Middle Eastern and North African countries. According to the organization's Internet site, in the nine years since the fund was started, the United States has distributed $580 million through it to 18 countries.

It seems the Americans understood that given food shortages in the region, they would have to overlook shortcomings in democracy. And so, just three months ago, the State Department published its 2009 Human Rights Report. The chapter on Egypt is as serious as the ones that precede it. But this did not prevent President Barack Obama from calling Mubarak, at the end of a meeting at the White House in August 2009, "a leader, an adviser and a friend."

If it hadn't been for the masses who poured into the streets, touching off shock waves in international stock markets, this brave friendship would have simply been handed down to Gamal Mubarak.

Here are some excerpts from the report: "Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals, in some cases for political purposes, and kept them in prolonged pretrial detention. The executive branch exercised control over and pressured the judiciary. The government's respect for freedoms of association and religion remained poor during the year. . . The government partially restricted freedom of expression . . . in practice through harassment, censorship, and arrests and detentions . . . the government blocked access to some Web sites and monitored the Internet. . . during the year the government continued to implement an August 2008 regulation requiring Internet cafes to gather personal information of Internet users, including names, e-mail addresses, and telephone numbers. . . During the year police harassed, detained, and allegedly abused certain bloggers and Internet activists." Along with this bad news, the State Department reported a slightly more forgiving approach to non-violent demonstrations and to criticism of the regime, and even the president, in the independent press. Let's hope we won't soon wax nostalgic for Mubarak.

The fortress of democracy

The U.S. regime operates, of course, along different lines than the Egyptian. Its politicians uphold their ideals and are not vulnerable to temptations offered by organizations that help raise funds and enlist voters for them.

Take, for example, Representative Gary Ackerman, the veteran congressman from New York. In a debate that took place just a year ago in Congress, this Jewish Democrat mentioned in the same breath Palestinian terror and Israeli settlements, the excavation of tunnels in Gaza and digs in the Holy Basin of Jerusalem. It was only natural that in the last election, Ackerman was supported by the Jewish American peace organization, J Street.

Last week Ackerman published an open letter in which he announced that he had cut off ties with J Street because its leaders had called on Obama to refrain from vetoing the U.N. Security Council decision to term the settlements illegitimate and to condemn Israel for expanding them. The heads of J Street made a point of noting that they support an exchange of territories that would take into consideration settlements near the Green Line. Ackerman accused J Street of assisting Israel's enemies in isolating the country instead of blaming the Palestinians for refusing to negotiate an end to the occupation. Ackerman's behavior couldn't possibly be related to the fact that his electoral district contains many Jews who support the settlements and outposts. Things like that only happen in backward countries.