Mid-East AmBush: How Bush policies undermine U.S., and region's, interests

So much attention has been paid to the Bush Administration's dramatic confrontations with its enemies in the Middle East that there is little consideration of how it treats its Arab allies there. In its rush to dispose of perceived threats to U.S. interests in the region, the White House has neglected its relations with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, while accommodating an increasingly autocratic Egypt. And the White House, not to mention the "expert" commentary on the Middle East, fails to distinguish differences between Arab governments and groups-and the U.S. interests at stake with each.

Washington has empowered Islamist groups, particularly the local chapters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, that are bolstering their political and theological franchise by fanning fears of a U.S. war on Islam. The nature of U.S. hegemony, embodied in the ever-tightening relationship with Israel, has made it impossible for moderate Arab regimes to cooperate with Washington-contributing to the leadership vacuum that was so achingly apparent during the month-long conflict between Israel and Lebanon's Hizballah. And while the White House neglects the House of Saud, it overindulges Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and overestimates the staying power of the Mubarak dynasty.

The Egyptian leader is unwittingly plotting his regime's demise by refusing to recognize rising and potentially destabilizing discontent and to neutralize it through an open political process. Mubarak's re-election last September in Egypt's first free-albeit hardly fair, according to a legion of impartial monitors-national ballot raised hopes that the Bush Administration would pressure Cairo to allow opposition groups to mobilize as political parties. Such a move would have not only put into tangible effect Bush's signature rhetoric on democracy, it would also have created for Mubarak an escape valve for tensions.

Then, in May, when violent demonstrations erupted amid high-level charges of official vote rigging and voter intimidation, many reformers believed Mubarak, with American prodding, would finally relent. Instead, he locked up protestors and rejected a legal appeal from dissident Ayman Nour, who in January 2005 was convicted and jailed on spurious forgery charges. U.S. diplomats in Cairo were stunned by the move, since they had been assured by senior authorities that Nour, a diabetic in poor health, would be released.

Not only did Washington fail to check Mubarak's excesses, it hosted his son and rumored heir apparent, Gamal, at a "secret" meeting in the White House. On the streets of Cairo, the timing of the encounter-it took place just as the demonstrations were gaining momentum-was taken as a White House endorsement of not only Mubarak's tactics but also his filial succession. Indeed, Egyptians see President Bush's pledge to spread democracy throughout the Middle East as fraudulent as the election that returned the 78-year-old Mubarak to his fifth and most certainly final term.

The United States gets little in return for subsidizing Mubarak's brutality. True, Egypt has provided tactical assistance-"rendering" suspected terrorists for interrogation, for example, or negotiating the release of journalists held hostage in Gaza. But Mubarak has studiously avoided playing a constructive role on the issues of overriding, strategic importance to the United States: ending Israeli-Palestinian violence and helping to pre-empt a conflagration over Iranian nuclear ambitions. As the leader of what is widely regarded as the most influential Arab state, Mubarak has chosen to insulate himself amid Arab-world equivocation. Are these the results that Bush, the most unilateral of U.S. leaders, hoped to achieve? Either way, the Middle East is poorer for it.

And what happens at the end of Mubarak's term? Though widely tipped as his successor, Gamal has earned no power base of his own and will most likely flee Egypt should his father die suddenly or become incapacitated. Odds are better that Mubarak will transfer power to a military man in exchange for his own and his family's protection, to spare them the fate that Anwar Sadat meted out to Gamal Abdel Nasser's inner circle after the latter's death in 1970.

Or, Mubarak could be succeeded in free and fair elections by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, widely considered the most capable political organization in the Arab world today, with an unparalleled network of patronage and community services. Absent secular competition, the Brotherhood (which is banned as a party but fields candidates as independents) has enlarged its bloc in Parliament to 88 seats, making it the largest opposition group in Egypt. A Brotherhood victory in Egypt would shake an already tremulous Middle East. It would complete the transition of political Islam from the fringes of power to its epicenter, with unknown consequences. And absent some tough love from Cairo's "friends" in the White House, it just might happen.