Is it any wonder that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Washington davka when Congress was out of session?
Mubarak’s sleepy summer-time visit to Washington is purposefully timed. He wants to avoid Congressional scrutiny of his government’s human rights abuses, the anti-Semitic Egyptian publishing industry, Egypt’s massive military build-up, and its very mixed record in regional peacemaking.
Mubarak last visited Washington five and eleven years ago. Prior to the 1998 visit, at a time of great Egyptian-Israeli tensions, I wrote a column entitled Make Mubarak Sweat which infuriated the Egyptians. Al Ahram in Cairo even reprinted the full column in Arabic on their front page to demonstrate how much, in their words, “Israelis hate Egypt.”
Egypt is, of course, too large and important a country to write-off as an enemy, and the Egypt-Israel peace, however cold, is a regional strategic cornerstone.
But for years Cairo has done everything possible to prevent the normalization of relations with Israel by any other Arab states. Mubarak has consistently opposed the reconvening of the so-called multilateral committees, effectively shutting-down this second-tier negotiating track. Egypt also impeded Israel’s attempts to be accepted into a regional grouping at the UN, and has backed the attempt to label settlements as war crimes under international conventions. At the current moment, too, Mubarak has rejected President Obama’s call for Arab world good-faith concessions to Israel.
In the sixteen years since the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies was established – a center named in honor of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty — not a single top-level Egyptian academic or military strategist has deigned (or dared) to participate in a conference at the Center in Israel!
And of course, Mubarak has no plans to himself visit Israel. In fact, he has never made a state visit to Israel. (Paying his respects at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral doesn’t count).
But this presidential summit demonstrates the dramatic about-face in U.S.-Egyptian relations since Obama’s election, as David Schenker and J. Scott Carpenter of the Washington Institute have noted. After years of tension resulting from the Bush Administration’s focus on human rights and democratic development, the traditional U.S.-Egyptian bilateral “bargain” has been effectively restored, they say. In exchange for cooperation on key mutual interests — the peace process and the Iranian threat — Washington appears to have shelved longstanding concerns over internal Egyptian governance.
So Obama isn’t delivering any pro-democracy messages to Mubarak. Just the opposite. Despite his much-ballyhooed and grandiose June 4 “Address to the Moslem World,” Obama is abandoning the Moslem world to its long-standing dictators. A July report by the Project on Middle East Democracy found that while the Obama administration has increased its request for democracy funding in the Middle East overall, it has cut such funding for Egypt by more than half and cut aid to independent civil society organizations by more than two-thirds. Michele Dunne of the Arab Reform Bulletin this week expressed to The Washington Post the degree of betrayal she feels about Obama.
While the Obama-Mubarak partnership may be useful in mitigating some regional crises, many question marks hang over Mubarak’s Egypt. Ehud Eilam of the BESA Center has written about the many reasons for instability in the Israel-Egypt relationship including the all-important question of succession. Efraim Inbar and Moti Kedar of the BESA Center have convincingly outlined Cairo’s two-faced approach to competition and cooperation with Israel and the Hamas.
Among other, they explain why Israel cannot rely on Egypt to help crush the Hamas. Egypt does not mind if Hamas bleeds Israel a little; it gains domestically by indirectly aiding Hamas build its military capacity; gains internationally by playing a mediating role in a conflict which it simultaneously helps maintain on a “low flame”; and Cairo, they say, is anyway largely incapable of stopping the Sinai Bedouins from continuing as the main weapons smugglers into Gaza.
The same goes for the peace process. Egypt is in favor and at times helpful; while at other times it acts to stiffen Palestinians positions away from compromise with Israel.
Nevertheless, Jerusalem is at present soft-peddling its criticism of Egypt because the Netanyahu administration needs Egypt for the regional coalition against Iran and against Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda; and for the Gilad Shalit negotiations. Mubarak is reciprocating: When meeting US Jewish leaders this week, he even warmly praised Netanyahu!
As a result, Mubarak is not going to have to sweat out this visit to Washington. Everybody is making nice. The only question left open, then, is how many times Obama will bow before, and kiss, Mubarak….
* Note: This is a revised version of the original August 17 post, as published in The Jerusalem Post on August 19, 2009.