Stand Up to Mr. Mubarak

Thursday, December 29, 2005; Editorial, Washington Post, Page A22

IT HAS BEEN 24 days since the Egyptian democracy activist Ayman Nour was unjustly imprisoned by the government of Hosni Mubarak; 18 days since he began a hunger strike to protest his treatment; and five days since he was actually convicted and sentenced by a state security court judge to a term of five years on a blatantly bogus charge of forgery. The Bush administration has issued predictable public statements expressing "serious concerns" and calling for Mr. Nour's release on humanitarian grounds. With equal predictability, Mr. Mubarak's foreign minister has rejected the White House appeals. Now comes the real test: Will President Bush use the considerable means of American leverage over the Egyptian regime in defense of Mr. Nour?
Mr. Mubarak is betting that he won't. Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. aid after Iraq and Israel, with $1.8 billion in annual military and economic assistance. It is also avidly seeking a free-trade agreement with the United States. But Mr. Mubarak supposes that Egypt's maintenance of a cold peace with Israel, and its sporadic efforts to help the Palestinian Authority, immunize him from any consequences for his persecution of Mr. Nour.

In essence, Egypt's 77-year-old president is seeking to prove that Mr. Bush's commitment to democracy isn't serious. Mr. Bush, after all, has called on Egypt to lead the way toward reform in the Middle East. Mr. Nour is a secular moderate who advocates the same transformation. When he was first imprisoned, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Egypt; when he was released on bail, she met with him in Cairo. There can be no doubt that the jailing of the 41-year-old politician is a major setback to the cause of change in Egypt and an affront to the Bush administration. If Mr. Bush's reaction is limited to the tepid rhetoric of "serious concerns," Mr. Mubarak will have demonstrated that democracy is no more important to U.S. policy now that it was before Sept. 11, 2001. The way will be open for him to install his 42-year-old son, Gamal, as his successor.
How could Mr. Bush show that Mr. Mubarak is wrong? A first step would be to suspend all discussions between his administration and Egypt over a free-trade agreement. Egypt's business community and the pro-capitalist civilian ministers in Mr. Mubarak's government regard such an agreement as one of their top priorities. Many of them privately deplore the persecution of Mr. Nour but believe it does not affect their interests. They should be made to understand that it will not be possible for Egypt to expand U.S. trade and investment as long as Mr. Mubarak is blocking political reforms.
Mr. Bush should also order a long-overdue review of U.S. aid to Egypt, beginning with its military component. Subsidizing the Egyptian army might have made sense during the Cold War, but by helping Mr. Mubarak's generals now, the United States merely props up his dictatorship. Economic aid to Egypt desperately needs overhauling: Egypt still seeks to prevent the United States from channeling funds to independent civil society groups, rather than wasteful and corrupt government projects.
Any effort to reform the U.S.-Egyptian relationship will be opposed by those in Washington who have never supported Mr. Bush's democracy agenda. But sentiment in Congress is shifting. This month the House passed a resolution by a vote of 388 to 22 calling on Mr. Bush to "take into account" Egypt's progress toward democracy "when determining the type and nature of United States diplomatic engagement with the government of Egypt; and the type and level of assistance to be requested for the government of