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Constitution Crisis

What happens when America gives up on democracy in the Middle East?

Cairo, Egypt

The rally is called for 6:00 p.m. on Sunday at Tahrir Square, one of Cairo's busiest intersections. "Protest Mubarak's dictatorial amendments to the constitution," reads the message that circulates across Egypt by e-mails, blogs, and text messages. "Make sure you bring bottles of water, food supplies, and as many inverted Egyptian flags as possible."

The message also makes its way to the Egyptian security forces, which, by noon, have fanned out across the square by the hundreds, stone-faced and baton-wielding. Despite the constant flow of tourists and students, the tension in Tahrir is palpable--heightened by truckloads of plainclothes thugs, bussed in by the government from the country's rural south, who are lined up around every street corner, waiting anxiously for the first sign of discord.

At 6:15 p.m., there are no protesters to be seen. Three young activists burst forth from a side street and attempt to infiltrate the grassy mound at the center of the intersection. They don't even make it halfway across the street before they are detained by security officials, who push them back onto the sidewalk. Within seconds, they are engulfed by the horde of imported muscle, who, assaulting and manhandling the activists, force them back up the side street from which they emerged only seconds earlier.

The message spreads fast among activists. Tahrir is out. Too much security. Frustrated, many of them make their way over to the Journalist Syndicate--a union building whose steps have become a platform for demonstrations in the past few years. But, even there, the state security forces have encircled the building. The activists half-heartedly start their usual rallying cry--"Down with Mubarak"--and wave posters that decry the 34 amendments passed in parliament last week, which are a drastic step backward for democracy and freedom in Egypt. But, with the security barrier three-men deep, they are barely visible from the street. "So this is what democracy looks like," says one activist as she puts down her sign and takes a seat on the steps. "Thanks, Condi."

This is what has become of Kifaya, the taboo-breaking democracy movement that could bring hundreds to its protests only two years ago. This is also what has become of America's efforts at democracy promotion in the Middle East.

Condoleezza Rice's 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo will arguably be the defining moment of her tenure as Secretary of State. Speaking to an audience of politicians, academics, and civil society leaders, in a speech that was broadcast across Egypt and the entire Middle East, Secretary Rice made the Bush administration's clearest commitment to democracy promotion in the region. "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East--and we achieved neither," she said. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

Rice did not beat around the bush--forcefully condemning the violence, intimidation, and corruption that defined Egypt's constitutional referendum a few weeks earlier. She looked Egypt's leaders right in the face and said, "We are all concerned for the future of Egypt's reforms. ... It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."

Her blunt message sent shock waves across the region. Of course, there were those who questioned America's actual commitment to democracy or who criticized Rice's condescending and moralizing catechism. But her speech emboldened Egypt's reformists and opposition groups as they headed into the country's first multi-candidate presidential elections. It pressured the Mubarak government to hold the fairest parliamentary elections in recent Egyptian history--with opposition groups winning one third of the seats. And it opened an unparalleled space for freedom of expression in Egypt, culminating in a bold campaign by Egypt's judges to condemn the corruption of the Mubarak regime.

Fast forward to 2007. Iraq is spinning out of control and President Bush is desperate to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict so that his legacy is not one of total failure. Democracy promotion has taken a backseat to these more pressing concerns, and Egypt--among the first to benefit from those initial freedoms--is now among the first to suffer from this neglect.

The occasion for this week's protest was a series of constitutional amendments pushed through parliament by the ruling National Democratic Party. Originally championed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his 2005 reelection campaign as part of a broad reform package, the amendments have turned out to be nothing but Mubarak's latest effort to consolidate power and ensure a smooth transfer of the presidency to his son, Gamal.

Among the 34 amendments are a new antiterrorism law that essentially allows the Egyptian government to violate all civil liberties; the establishment of a central electoral commission that takes election monitoring away from Egypt's judges (the last independent force in the Egyptian government); a mandate for a new electoral law that restricts the participation of independents in presidential elections; clauses that enshrine the absence of a vice president; and new presidential powers to disband the parliament at will.

The amendments have been described as Egypt's "greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years" by Amnesty International, while Human Rights Watch condemned them for "effectively remov[ing] basic protections against violations of Egyptians' rights to freedom, security of person and home and due process."

So how has the United States handled this roll-back of freedom? "Well, you have to put this in the wider context of political and economic reform in Egypt," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, whom reporters berated at a press conference last week. "It is our view ... that a process of political reform has begun in Egypt." The reporters don't bite; they cite the amendments. "We all know that the police have a role and the security services have a role to play in terms of maintaining civil order. ... That balance is going to be struck differently here, for instance, in the U.K. or Egypt or anyplace else around the globe." So does the relativistic approach to freedom signal that the United States given up on pressing for democracy in Egypt? "I frankly don't want to insert the United States government in the middle of what should be a domestic political event in Egypt," McCormack said.

Rice, for her part, was a bit more forthcoming in her criticism. "[A]s the Middle East moves toward greater openness and greater pluralism and greater democratization, Egypt ought to be in the lead of that. And it's disappointing that this has not happened," she said as she departed for the Middle East last week. But even this mild criticism did not last long; Rice arrived this week in Egypt, where, to gain Mubarak's support for her efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace, she backpedaled furiously on democracy: "We recognize that states [reform] in their own way, and that they do it in a way that is consistent with their own cultural circumstances," she said. "It is not a matter to try to dictate to Egypt how this unfolds." And the final nail in the Freedom Agenda's coffin is the White House's lackluster response to the amendments on Tuesday--more than a week after the amendments passed in parliament--offering the limp-wristed admonition, "As the Middle East moves toward greater openness and pluralism, we hope that Egypt will take a leading role as it does on many other regional issues."

Policy-making is always a balancing act among competing interests. Perhaps there are situations in which strategic concerns should trump democracy promotion. If that's the case, the Bush administration probably shouldn't loudly profess its preference for democracy promotion over realpolitik. But, more importantly, as the administration becomes increasingly comfortable ignoring the human rights abuses of its "moderate" Arab allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in exchange for their support in other arenas, it should remember that sacrificing America's commitment to democracy has direct consequences for the people of the Middle East.

Those consequences are on display at the Journalist Syndicate, where a handful of activists slip away from the protest and make their way downtown for what might be their last chance to express themselves before the new laws kick in. As they reach Talat Harb square, another one of Cairo's main intersections, their chants of "Down with Mubarak" are quickly smothered by dozens of state security officials, who descend upon them with fists and clubs. Within seconds, the activists are thrown into an iron truck, yelping with pain. Their voices are barely audible from the windowless cabin. But is there anyone even left to hear them?