Opinion: What will it take for change to come to Egypt?

PALO ALTO — Not so long ago, when an American president wanted help in the Arab world, he would call Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, who was routinely known as America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

When Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader, gave a furious anti-American speech, the White House said it was Mubarak’s call that convinced President Ronald Reagan to continue discussion with the PLO.

When President Bill Clinton worried that Iraq would flout United Nations resolutions on weapons inspections, he called Mubarak and asked him to put pressure on Baghdad. Mubarak agreed, and the next day Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minster, hopped on a plane for Cairo.

That was then. But over the last decade, Mubarak has squandered his influence. Now, when a president or secretary of state wants to rally support for an American policy in the Middle East, he (or she) flies to Riyadh.

Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 29 years, ever since the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He is hardly the only dictator in the Middle East. Aside from Israel, Lebanon and now Iraq, the entire region is ruled by monarchs and assorted potentates. But Mubarak thrived as a friend to the West by rhetorically styling his regime as a “moderate Arab state.”

But then came Egypt’s election in 2005. Ahead of it, Mubarak arrested Ayman Nour, an opposition leader. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a scheduled trip to Cairo in protest. And after Mubarak’s shock troops harassed voters, closed polling stations and imprisoned political opponents during the elections, Washington cooled toward Cairo. The moderate label was forever lost. Mubarak used to visit the White House every year. When he arrived for a visit last August, it was his first in five years.

Now, Mubarak is 81 years old. His country is stagnant and alone, his people discouraged and poor. The average per-capita income remains mired at about $1,800 a year. Maybe that’s why so many Egyptians were excited by Mohamed ElBaradei’s brief visit home late last month.

Read more about the questions he left in his wake when he returned to Vienna early this week.

Elbaradei has been away for three decades, serving for the last 12 as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Along the way he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, he is setting himself up to challenge Mubarak. Might he be the one who shatters Egypt’s unfortunate political stalemate?

Who knows what kind of president ElBaradei might be. He ran an agency with a staff of about 2,200. Egypt's population exceeds 80 million. But he has lived in Western Europe and worked with Western leaders since 1980. He is steeped in democratic values. Coming home, Egypt must feel archaic but familiar. His father, a lawyer, battled President Gamal Nasser over democratic freedoms.

ElBaradei has not declared his candidacy for elections next year. He says only, “I have an idea, which is to help people exercise their freedom and for there to be social justice. Ninety-nine percent of Egyptians want change, the poor and the rich, the young and the old.”

Why might ElBaradei succeed? He was back in Egypt, for more than a week, and Mubarak did not arrest him. Given the international furor that accompanied the arrest of Ayman Nour, a relative unknown, Mubarak probably realizes he might not survive the international opprobrium that would follow harassment or arrest of ElBaradei.

Big change comes to frozen conflicts usually only after some outside force intervenes. The Gulf War in 1991 changed the balance of power in the Israel-Palestine conflict and led to the Oslo Accords. At about the same time, the collapse of the Soviet shattered the deadlock between China, Vietnam and Cambodia.

On a smaller scale, ElBaradei could be the change from outside that forces movement in Egypt. But the United States must help. Washington must push Mubarak to hold truly free elections this time. The U.S. holds the lever: $2 billion a year in aid.

Unfortunately, democracy promotion is a dirty phrase for the Obama administration. During their first months in office, neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even uttered the word democracy in a manner related to democracy promotion.

During that time, the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor put out dozens of releases, and not one of them discussed democracy promotion. The situation has improved only marginally since. Still, democracy promotion, tarred by the Bush administration’s abuse of the concept, has largely been banished from the Obama administration's public vocabulary.

But Egypt is different. The country used to be an important friend, and the U.S. still holds influence in Cairo. If Washington pushed Mubarak to stage free elections, and ElBaradei won, that could be a transforming moment for the Middle East. And, how long might all of those other dictatorships endure if the region’s oldest and most populous nation were at last free?