Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday abruptly called off a planned trip to several Middle Eastern countries that had been scheduled for next week, a decision that came apparently because of the arrest of a leading Egyptian opposition politician last month....
The linchpin for Ms. Rice's trip had been a planned meeting in Cairo of foreign ministers for the Group of 8 industrial nations and the Arab League to discuss economic aid and democratic change in the Middle East.
But that meeting was postponed by Egypt on Sunday in an early sign of the tensions that have been building even as the Bush administration has praised Egypt for its help in the Israeli-Palestinian mediation after Yasir Arafat's death.
The immediate trigger for the tensions was the arrest on Jan. 28 of Ayman Nour, a member of Egypt's largely powerless Parliament and head of an opposition party called Al Ghad, or Tomorrow. When Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit visited Washington last week, Ms. Rice made her displeasure clear, officials said.
After the meeting, Mr. Gheit protested that Mr. Nour's arrest was an internal Egyptian matter, and Suleiman Awad, the spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak, said he rejected "any foreign interference in Egypt's internal affairs."
What complicates the whole matter is the fact that US diplomats are not free to negotiate some compromise. The administration is under considerable pressure from Congress to hold to a hard line on democratization. The NYT notes:
Some members of Congress then began urging Ms. Rice not to attend the meeting of Arab and Group of 8 nations in Cairo. One of them, Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is on the Middle East subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, co-sponsored a resolution condemning Egypt for arresting Mr. Nour.
"To attend a conference on democracy in Egypt right now would be the height of irony," [emphasis mine] Mr. Schiff said in an interview on Friday. "The State Department must send the message to Egypt that it is on the wrong track, that we are no longer willing to overlook these things."
Congressman Schiff has a point, and a very good one. Professional diplomats tend to favor sophisticated, nuanced approaches to complex problems -- ones that settle for half-loaves or much less -- but as we have seen in recent weeks, a clear, positive initiative pushed vigorously can at times achieve far more than the nuanced, hesitant approach favored in the diplomatic community. This is such a time. The tide is turning and the sea is changing.
One measure of how much the sea has changed is the fact that Rep. Schiff felt comfortable using the term "ironic" in a pejorative sense.
The WaPo adds some detail, including an explanation of why Rice felt she had to cancel her visits to other countries in the region:
It would have been considered a major diplomatic slight for Rice to travel to other major countries in the Middle East while skipping Egypt. So after returning from President Bush's European tour, Rice made the decision early yesterday to attend only the London conference.
So here is the weakness of formal diplomacy exposed: the conventions of the game require that cancellation of one date on the tour means that the whole thing has to be scuttled. At this point Rice's visible presence in the Middle East would have been an immensely heartening signal to the freedom demonstrators. But it is not to be. Sad!
Read the NYT story here. The WaPo story is here.
Perhaps I wrote too quickly; Mubarak may be caving. AP reports that:
Of course this could just be window-dressing.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered a revision of the country's election laws Saturday and said multiple candidates could run in the nation's presidential elections, a scenario Mubarak has not faced since taking power in 1981....
"The election of a president will be through direct, secret balloting, giving the chance for political parties to run for the presidential elections and providing guarantees that allow more than one candidate for the people to choose among them with their own will," Mubarak said in an address broadcast live on Egyptian television.
Opposition figures and reform advocates welcomed Mubarak's announcement, but some feared it may only be a superficial change to appease pressure at home and abroad.And, of course, free elections might strengthen Islamist groups that are currently proscribed.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and most influential Islamic group, said it would consider putting forward a candidate for the presidency if an amendment is passed. The group will study any changes "and if we find such interest, then we will not hesitate in naming a candidate," group leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef said.
The Brotherhood likely would be the strongest rival for Mubarak in any fully open race in Egypt, but it was not known if the group would be able to run even if the constitution is revised.
On the face of it this seems to be an encouraging development. Of course, much could go wrong, but let's keep hoping. Read about Mubarak's speech and the reaction to it here.