The Egyptian government has publicly rejected U.S. demands — and President Obama's personal request — for monitors to observe Sunday's parliamentary elections and for adherence to international standards of transparency and fairness.
President Hosni Mubarak's government instead has overseen a crackdown against his political opposition, arresting at least 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, and disqualifying their leaders in many cases from even standing for election.
Cairo's snubbing of Mr. Obama follows the U.S. president's run of hard luck in general on Middle East diplomacy. This month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected Mr. Obama's personal request to relinquish the presidency. In 2009, the Iranian government rejected multiple offers from Mr. Obama to resume direct negotiations.
The mood from official Cairo was captured in a front-page editorial this week in the state-run and -funded newspaper, Al-Ahram, which often serves as a weather vane for the thinking inside the Mubarak regime.
"America and its experts should know and realize the Egyptian leadership role," al-Ahram's editor, Osama Saraya, said in the editorial. "Egypt has played and plays an important role in matters of regional peace and security … and is capable of bringing regional stability to all the areas that are regressing due to wrong U.S. policies in Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
"The United States is the one that ought to listen to Egypt, and not the other way around, as Egypt is managing its political, economic, and social reforms and maintaining its regional role in maintaining peace and international security … and the Egyptian political regime enjoys both domestic and international credibility."
Dina Guirghis, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, "This statement and tone from official Cairo are both disheartening and alarming because they demonstrate that the Egyptian regime, through its official media mouthpiece, is now comfortable demonstrating strong posturing highlighting the United States' declining influence in the region, including on issues of critical domestic reform."
The clash over the elections also demonstrates the delicate balance at the heart of U.S. diplomacy with Egypt, whose intelligence service has served as an intermediary between Hamas and Israel, as well as the trainer of the Palestinian preventive-security services. Washington also is asking for Cairo to help influence the government in Sudan in January after a referendum that is expected to affirm the south's long-standing desire to secede from the northern part of the country.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement this month accusing the United States of trying to interfere in Egypt's internal affairs.
"The latest positions taken by the administration towards Egyptian internal affairs is something that is absolutely unacceptable," it said. "It is as if the United States has turned into a caretaker of how Egyptian society should conduct its politics. Whoever thinks that this is possible is deluded."
It was not always like this. In 2005, the last time Egypt held parliamentary elections, the first round of voting was widely considered fair. The state allowed for the first time unofficial candidates linked to Ikhwan to campaign, and the Islamic party won more seats in 2005 than ever before.
But in the subsequent two rounds of voting, independent Egyptian judges reported widespread intimidation of voters in polling places. The two judges who led that investigation eventually were arrested, sparking protests throughout the country.
The 2005 elections followed a push from the Bush administration to open authoritarian societies in the Middle East. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke on June 20, 2005, at the American University in Cairo, urging Mr. Mubarak to allow for free and competitive elections.
Two years earlier, Miss Rice threatened to cut U.S. military aid to Egypt if it did not release from prison Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a pro-reform sociologist who was imprisoned for accepting Western funding. Over time, however, the Bush administration stopped pressuring Mr. Mubarak.
Mr. Obama's approach has been less public and more subtle. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo, for example, supported a letter sent in July by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who is also the chairwoman of the National Democratic Institute, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the International Republican Institute, urging Mr. Mubarak to allow international observers for the parliamentary contest.
On Sept. 1, Mr. Obama personally asked Mr. Mubarak to allow the monitors in his bilateral meeting at the White House before the launch of the current peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The press statement that followed the meeting said, "President Obama reaffirmed the importance of a vibrant civil society, open political competition, and credible and transparent elections in Egypt."
The State Department went public with a call for monitors this month from spokesman P.J. Crowley. In response to the statement from the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Crowley said, "This is not interfering in Egyptian affairs. This is encouraging a very close friend of the United States that its elections are vitally important and that its people want to see and have opportunities for greater participation in Egypt's political system and have a government that is more representative of all segments of Egyptian society."
David Schenker, director of the program for Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Egypt's resistance to international monitors reflects in some ways how Mr. Mubarak is nervous about who will succeed him. Mr. Mubarak, 82, is said by Western intelligence services to be suffering from a form of stomach cancer.
"How come we succeeded in Jordan, but failed in Egypt?" Mr. Schenker said. "We pushed hard for monitors in Jordan, but it failed in Egypt. In Egypt, we had no success. I think it is because the regime is very concerned about the succession after Mubarak. It is the key to how they engineer succession. The Egyptians also wanted to knock the Islamists down a peg or two, compared to 2005 when the Muslim Brotherhood did very well."
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