Tuesday, March 31, 2009

CAIRO (AP) - Four years ago, the United States talked about two laboratories for democracy in the Middle East: Iraq and Egypt.

Egypt was supposed to be the easier one. But now it’s battered Iraq that has shown democratic advances, while Egypt seems to be going backward with President Hosni Mubarak’s government solidifying its hold on the levers of power.

Still, Egypt is hoping for improved ties with the United States under President Barack Obama after the Bush administration called for reform by Mubarak and after years of strains over the staunch U.S. ally’s human rights record.

The Obama administration has already hinted it won’t hinge its relationship with Egypt on human rights demands, moving away from former President George W. Bush’s ambitious _ or overreaching, as some in the region felt _ claims to seek a democratic transformation in the region.

Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S., Sameh Shukri, said last week that ties are on the mend and that Washington has dropped conditions for better relations, including demands for “human rights, democracy and religious and general freedoms.”

“Conditionality” with Egypt “is not our policy,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Egyptian TV earlier this month. “We also want to take our relationship to the next level.”

One sign that the chill is ending will be if Mubarak visits the United States _ which he has not done since 2004, but which Egyptian officials say may be possible this year.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has tightened its grip at home. Many believe it is a sign that Mubarak, who turns 81 in May and faces presidential elections in 2011, is trying to ensure a smooth succession. He is widely believed to be maneuvering his younger son, Gamal _ a leading figure in the ruling party _ to rise to the presidency.

Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party is unchallenged, dominating a rubber-stamp parliament. The opposition expects their numbers to decline after next year’s parliamentary elections due to restrictions in political activity that were pushed through by Mubarak’s government as constitutional amendments. Democracy activists have largely abandoned public protests.

In recent weeks, one of the last major checks on the regime was neutralized when a pro-government figure was elected head of the powerful judges’ association. Judges monitor Egypt’s elections and the association’s members have in the past blown the whistle on official attempts at rigging.

February’s prison release of prominent opposition politician Ayman Nour was seen by many as Egypt’s attempt to improve ties with Washington, which frequently criticized his imprisonment on forgery charges.

But Nour, who challenged Mubarak in 2005 presidential elections, has been banned from running for office and last week was barred from practicing law because of his conviction. Nour maintains the charges were trumped up to remove him from politics.

Bush made democracy-building a main plank of his Mideast policy, and it was clear that Egypt was one of its main test cases, along with Iraq. In 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke in Cairo, saying it was time for Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt unquestioned since 1981, to bring reform.

At the time, Egypt was seeing an unprecedented wave of pro-democracy street protests. Parliamentary elections that year saw large gains for the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Under pressure at home and abroad, Mubarak agreed to allow competitive presidential elections for the first time after years of one-man referenda. Mubarak easily won, and Nour _ who came in a distant second _ was convicted soon after.

Over the next four years, Mubarak’s government pushed through the amendments that limited political activity, restricted who can run for president and enshrined the government’s sweeping powers to detain people. Security forces launched a heavy crackdown on the Brotherhood.

At the same time, the Bush administration dialed back public pressure for reform because, many here believe, it wanted Egypt’s help in regional crises. Most reform activists saw Washington’s pressure as half-hearted _ enough to anger Cairo but not enough to force real change.

It’s a strong contrast to Iraq, which in 2005 was sliding into chaos, culminating in the next two years with bloody sectarian violence that nearly pushed the country to civil war.

But with security improving in the past year, a lively political culture has emerged. In January’s provincial elections, voters dissatisfied with the dominant religious parties punished them at the ballot box _ something unheard of in Egypt.


AP correspondent Paul Schemm has covered the Middle East for 10 years.

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