To get Arab nations behind the Middle East peace process, Barack Obama is making nice with the king of Egyptian corruption, President Hosni Mubarak. Can he be trusted?
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who held talks at the White House with President Obama on Tuesday, paid lip service to the need for political reform in his country. But the 81-year-old leader, often compared to the ancient pharaohs, kept the door open on the possibility he may seek a sixth term in office in 2011, amid speculation he was grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him at the helm.
The talks came following a clear warming of bilateral relations prompted by a mutual need to contain Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, and the rise of Islamic extremism in general throughout the region. Relations between Washington and Cairo deteriorated during the Bush administration because of the former president’s push for spreading democracy in the region, the Iraq war, and what Mubarak considered a blanket American support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights.
The 81-year-old leader, often compared to the ancient pharaohs, may seek a sixth term in office in 2011, amid speculation he is grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him at the helm.
Obama said on Tuesday he saw encouraging signs of a softening of Israel’s resistance to his call for a freeze on settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. Earlier in the day, an Israeli government minister said no tenders had been issued for new housing projects in Israeli settlements since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government took office nearly five months ago. Netanyahu had rejected Obama’s demand for a complete freeze, offering instead a temporary halt in return for Arab steps to normalize relations with Israel.
"There has been movement in the right direction," Obama said when asked about the latest development after talks with Mubarak. The two leaders, meeting for the third time in as many months, talked about how to jump-start the stalled Middle East peace process, a top foreign-policy priority for Obama.
Mubarak's visit comes as the Obama administration has been pushing moderate Arab states to take steps that could encourage Israel to freeze settlement building on Palestinian territory. Mubarak, however, said Arab states would only take a more active role in supporting the peace process once Israelis and Palestinians began direct negotiations.
Arab states have so far been cool to the idea of steps such as giving overflight rights to Israeli civilian aircrafts and allowing Israel to open interest sections in foreign embassies in their capitals.
They have put the onus on Israel to revive the peace process, while Israel has said the Palestinians and Arab states must first do more to advance the peace process.
According to Suleiman Awaad, a spokesman for Mubarak, the two leaders discussed a U.S. plan to present a peace proposal for Israelis and Palestinians next month.
“What is needed now is for the Americans to declare a plan to achieve peace in the Middle East,” Awaad said. Obama indicated that a U.S. plan may be presented when the United Nations General Assembly meets in September, Awaad said.
Obama told reporters after the meeting that the peace process requires “courageous leadership” from Arab states. Mubarak, on his first visit to the U.S. since 2004, said Egypt will “support the efforts of the United States to move toward finding a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Today’s talks are “part of our continued outreach, of continued engagement, in order to seek Middle East peace,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters earlier Tuesday. “Obviously, the president will take the opportunity to talk to the Egyptians about the responsibilities that we see for them in this process.”
In the question-and-answer session following the talks with Obama, Mubarak said the two leaders had also spoken about the need for political reform in Egypt.
“I have entered into the elections based on a platform that included reforms and therefore we have started to implement some of it and we still have two years to implement it,” Mubarak said through a translator.
The Washington Post greeted Mubarak with an editorial blasting his political repression of the opposition in his country. It also warned that Obama’s policy of tolerating Egyptian repression in return for regional diplomatic favors by Cairo could backfire:
“No amount of coddling by Mr. Obama is likely to change the behavior of Mr. Mubarak, who has 28 years of experience in deflecting U.S. initiatives. What it might do is help the regime to reject domestic demands for political liberalization as a crucial transition of power approaches,” the paper opined.
It pointed out that as U.S. pressure on Mubarak to reform has eased, “the regime has intensified political repression. On Monday it rejected the application by a centrist political party for legal registration.
“If Mr. Obama focuses his attention today on Mr. Mubarak and his dubious diplomatic contributions—as opposed to the Egyptian people and their legitimate demands for political change—the president will ignore the lessons of history.”
Salameh Nematt is an international writer for The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the international Arab daily Al Hayat, where he reported on U.S. foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the U.S. drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.