Egypt's foreign minister said several weeks ago that his nation was "trying to build a liberal democratic system in difficult circumstances" and it was not easy. The government of President Hosni Mubarak, apparently intent on keeping his autocratic rule safe, is no help.
The day before his June trip to Washington, Mubarak signed a law imposing tougher restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, the nonprofit institutions that can play valuable roles in helping countries increase political freedoms. Groups specializing in everything from improving children's health care to teaching new agricultural techniques can help villagers organize, articulate needs and become advocates to government agencies. But the new law does not just regulate organizations, it imposes so many restrictions as to make them dependent on the government for nearly all their operations. Now there can be no truly independent groups of this sort in Egypt.
Mubarak took office after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 and imposed a state of emergency that has not been lifted since. During the 1980s and '90s, terrorists proclaiming fealty to Islamic fundamentalism did threaten Egypt, killing police, government officials and tourists. The government responded with massive arrests, supported by its citizens, and with torture and executions. The threats seem largely over now, with onetime terrorists either in exile or renouncing violence.
The United States has some leverage to push for progress. It has been a major aid donor since Egypt recognized Israel during the Carter administration. U.S. officials say Egypt was quick to respond after the Sept. 11 attacks and allowed military access to Egyptian airspace and the Suez Canal.
Human rights campaigners are critical of Washington for not pushing Cairo harder to liberalize, however. Rather than being a model, they say, the U.S. responded to terrorism by imitating Egypt in making massive arrests and detaining suspects without charging them. Some of those criticisms are overblown, but Egyptian officials are quick to boast to visiting Americans that they confronted terrorism long ago and defeated it.
It's true that Mubarak may face a serious challenge from Islamic parties if he allows free elections. But encouraging the establishment of local advocacy groups and letting them speak out on political matters can be a safety valve. Egypt remains the intellectual center of the Arab world, and its influence extends far beyond its borders. It should clear the way for forming steppingstones toward democracy.
Sadat is remembered for making peace with Israel; Mubarak should aim for another broad legacy: putting Egypt on the road to democracy.