(photo credit: AP [file])
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has called on his parliament to amend 34 articles in the country's constitution to "consecrate the people's sovereignty as a source of power and give parliament more authority to monitor the government." Mubarak is suggesting, among other reforms, to end the 35-year-old state of emergency and to ease the path for potential presidential candidates.
Human rights activists are skeptical Mubarak will follow through on such pledges. "We have to go back to the gap between the regime's actual practices and the demand for amendments," said Hesham Kasem, president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Previous amendments were "followed by theatrical debate while everything was already fixed."
Such skepticism is certainly warranted while the post-9/11 push for democracy in this region is being pursued with so much trepidation. The rise of Hamas and Hizbullah seems to have placed the West in a classic Catch-22: pressing authoritarian regimes to open up threatens to usher in totalitarian Islamists in their place.
Mubarak and other strongmen, of course, have been playing this ambivalence to the hilt for many years. To the West, such leaders argue that they are the only bulwark against extremists. To their own people, they pretend to rally around the Palestinian cause in order to distract from the lack of domestic freedom and prosperity.
Playing the fragility game works in other spheres as well. If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with Mubarak next week, he is expected to bring up Egypt's failure to prevent the massive arms smuggling through the Egyptian border into Gaza. But this will be just one of many issues, and Israel will likely continue to treat Egypt as a peace-broker and prisoner-mediator in good standing, regardless of progress on the border issue.
While this choice of priorities is taken for granted, it makes little sense. If there was any lesson from the recent Lebanon war, it was the folly of allowing terrorists along our borders to arm themselves to the teeth with rockets and other sophisticated weaponry, forcing ourselves into a future war at an ever-growing price. Why, then, is Olmert not crying to high heaven that Egypt must stop Hamas from emulating Hizbullah?
The explanation goes back to the fragility game. Olmert could say the truth, namely that Egyptian irresponsibility is making the next war with the Palestinians more likely, and raising the cost of such a war for both sides. He could compare Egypt with Syria, saying that if Syria is treated as a pariah state for allowing rampant weapons smuggling to terrorists over its border, then Egypt cannot be treated as a constructive partner for peace while allowing a similar flow of weaponry over its own border.
Such statements, however, could well call into question the large sums of US military and economic aid to Egypt. And neither Israel nor the US seems interested in threatening aid to Egypt, since doing so might risk weakening what is still being treated as a friendly regime.
While the notion that Egypt is a partner to be supported has deep roots, and may well still be fundamentally correct, it is no excuse for giving Egypt a complete pass on the weapons smuggling issue.
There are, presumably, only two ways to prevent Hamas from emulating Hizbullah: stopping the weapons flow across the Egyptian/Gaza border, or going to war to destroy the weapons acquired so far and prevent an even greater threat from developing.
Olmert needs to ask himself this question: Are we prepared to go to war in Gaza to avoid putting effective pressure on Egypt to carry out its clear responsibilities?
If the answer is negative, the weapons smuggling should move to the top of Olmert's agenda with Mubarak next week, and should also be raised prominently and insistently with the United States.
While the democracy agenda in this region has ostensibly been discredited by events or mismanagement, the pre-9/11 worship of "stability" provided by corrupt dictatorships has, for good reason, not been openly revived. Clearly, a balance must be struck between blindly promoting democracy and blindly tolerating dictatorship.
Similarly, a balance must be struck between the desire not to undermine a presumably pro-Western government and the need to confront irresponsible behavior that, if tolerated, leads almost inexorably to war.
Our government must demand that Egypt stop the weapons flow into Gaza. If it does not take this minimal step, what will our leaders tell the commission of inquiry after the consequent war?