Parents and teachers know that consistent enforcement is critical. A child or student does not thrive with mixed messages; the policies of the home or classroom must be reliable to ensure effective management. Yet in adult relationships - and in relations between nations - the importance of consistency is often forgotten. This is certainly true of American policy toward Egypt, its closest Arab ally.
While U.S. policies in the Middle East have never been dependable, let alone consistent, a recent blot on U.S. attempts to bring democracy and freedom has emerged in Egypt. The country's constitutional referendum, perceived as illegitimate by the majority who boycotted it, further strips away civil liberties. Remarkably, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was unmoved.
The less-than-clear referendum, unintelligible for many in a country with 60 percent illiteracy, activated 27 percent of registered voters, according to officials. Human rights groups contested that claim, reporting a 5 percent to 6 percent turnout.
Most controversial was the substance of the referendum, three articles in particular.
Article 5 enshrines into law a ban on political parties with a religious platform and takes aim at the Muslim Brotherhood, which unofficially holds one-fifth of elected seats. Emblematic of a wider crackdown on opposition parties, this article disconcerts more than the Muslim Brotherhood and sets the stage for President Hosni Mubarak to pass leadership of the country to his son.
Article 88 removes judicial oversight of elections and replaces it with a government-appointed electoral commission. It also removes judges from direct monitoring of voting booths, citing a growing electorate.
Article 179 turns an emergency law allowing access into citizens' private lives, in place since the 1981 assassination of Anwar el Sadat, into a constitutional article, then law. As Egypt cracks down on terrorism, opposition forces (and most Egyptians) fear that they too will find freedoms curbed under the new law.
In the end, specifics stipulated in these articles matter little; it is the source of the amendments that continues to be problematic. Government-proposed changes continue to fall on deaf ears. The country has been ruled by the same National Democratic Party for more than two decades, during which all viable opposition has been forcibly eroded (or encouraged to disband), corruption has risen drastically, police abuse has become pervasive, and remaining trust has disappeared with suspiciously hasty constitutional processes.
Egyptians, for those whom apathy has not completely set in, are left wondering whether democracy is possible. Yet Ms. Rice's response remains muted, withholding criticism so that Egypt's support on other outstanding Middle East issues is ensured.
Where does U.S. policy vis-?-vis Egypt go wrong? Given the United States' declining reputation in the Middle East, it is desperate to maintain relations with allies who can assist in the so-called war on terror. Paid handsomely for its alliance, Egypt recognizes this and is pushing the envelope. Egypt's foreign minister says that the United States should stay clear of his state's internal affairs.
Dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in the Middle East is not new. Resistance by other traditional allies is on the rise. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah recently derided the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Jordan's King Abdullah, in an unprecedented fashion, called on Congress to address injustices toward the Palestinians. It appears a revolution is in the making.
Last, silence sends a message that the administration's "freedom and democracy" agenda is disingenuous. If it believed its rhetoric, America would pressure Egypt to expend more effort empowering civil society and less eroding liberties. Perceived complicity in Egypt's constitutional theatrics will reverberate regionally and undermine subsequent attempts at democratization.
Consistency is critical. Policies in the home, classroom or nation-state must be reliable. If the United States wants a free Lebanon or a free Iraq, it must make sure that its "great friends" - in this case, the Egyptians - are free. It is not too late. A statement of concern from the United States on Egypt's referendum, coupled with more muscular diplomacy in Cairo and a subtle, nonthreatening reference to the $2 billion annual paycheck Egypt receives from the United States, could yield results.
The lesson lies in the classroom: When one student is rewarded for bad behavior, it is doubly difficult to get the class to behave.
Michael Shank is the government relations officer and Samuel Rizk is a doctoral student at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Their e-mail addresses are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.