Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Beacon No. 25: Secretary Rice Not-Goes to Cairo


Right now it looks like walking the talk is getting results in the Middle East, as Bush administration pressure on undemocratic regimes—which many have dismissed as rhetoric at best and saber-rattling at worst—appears to be getting some traction in both Syria and Egypt.

First, Bush administration pressure on Syria has gotten a boost from peaceful street demonstrations in Lebanon demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from that country. With the al-Hariri assassination, the Lebanese seem to have had enough of the Syrian "peacekeeping" presence, whether the Syrians were truly responsible or not. The Assad government seems to have (grudgingly) acknowleded this, and will withdraw its troops to at least the Bekaa Valley—and then home—sometime real soon.

Second, Lebanon's pro-Syrian government resigned yesterday in the face of those same highly popular domestic protests (complete with protesters handing red roses to security officers) combined with international pressure (a Franco-American full-court press). While pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud remains in office, the opposition in Beirut is riding a wave of hope that Syria's profound influence in Lebanon may be diminishing.

Third, Syria suddenly, magically coughed up Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, another in a long line of Saddam Hussein's half-brothers and a big baddie in the "deck of cards." Mr. Hassan has allegedly been organizing and financing the Iraq insurgency and he was captured right where the Damascus government denied he was: Syria. In fact, the Syrians seem to have rolled up an entire network, capturing a few dozen other Iraqis in the bargain.

Fourth, Egypt's President Mubarak proposed a major reform last week: competitive presidential elections. He asked Egypt's parliament to amend the country's constitution accordingly, and while it remains to be seen whether this will be a reform in name only, the timing of his announcement is extraordinary. A month ago President Bush gently admonished Egypt to lead the way in Middle Eastern democracy in his State of the Union address. And Mubarak's announcement about contested elections came the day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled her visit to Egypt, a move widely seen as protesting the arrest and detention of Ayman Nour, an Egyptian opposition leader jailed for allegedly falsifying thousands of signatures on a license application for his party, al-Ghad.

Canceling a visit to Egypt? Egypt, which the U.S. needs to help pressure Syria? Egypt, which has been going out of its way to smooth relations between Israel and the Palestinians? Egypt, which arrested everyone and their cousin in pursuit of the bombers who killed so many Israelis at the Taba Hilton in October?

Fans of realpolitik must be horrified that the Bush administration is pushing the Syrians hard in the hope of influencing a less-important state like Lebanon, while threatening to alienate an Egyptian regime that's widely seen as a cultural, commercial and political linchpin in the Arab world.

But realpolitik and its quest for balance-of-power stability has caused the U.S. to cozy up to all manner of unsavory regimes in the past 60 years.

In soft power terms, the U.S. may win big regionally if it is seen as taking diplomatic risks to aid Egyptian reformers and lessen Syrian influence on Lebanon while keeping that country stable. It's a defense of ideals that people who yearn for control of their own destinies, in countries that have yet to experience true democracy, will find admirable.

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