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Posted at 10:51 AM ET, 03/ 1/2011

An Egyptian revolutionary seeks Obama's support

By Jackson Diehl

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Ahmed Salah as Ahmed Maher. Both were founders of the April 6th movement, but Saleh has since left the organization. Ahmed Maher has not visited Washington.

Ahmed Salah, one of the organizers of Egypt's popular uprising, embodies the ambivalence that the young protagonists of this year's Arab revolution feel about the United States. On one hand, Salah faults the Obama administration for failing to help him and his small pro-democracy movement for years while they tried to organize a mass movement against their authoritarian government -- and for being slow to respond when they finally succeeded.

On the other hand, Salah is in Washington this week to seek help from that same American administration -- which he believes could be critical in determining whether Egypt now transitions to genuine democracy.

"I came here because I was hoping the United States would finally be helpful rather than unhelpful," Salah told me in an interview. "This is a critical time -- we are at a turning point. And I'm hoping the United States this time will read the political signals correctly."

Salah is an impressive example of what the next generation of leadership in Egypt and the Arab world could be -- and of their potential to become either allies or antagonists of the United States. His English is well-polished; he wears horned-rimmed glasses and an Egyptian flag lapel pin on his suit jacket. He is fluent, too, in liberal politics and grass-roots organizing, to which he has devoted his life since co-founding the April 6 movement three years ago.

Salah was one of the tacticians behind a Jan. 25 demonstration in Cairo that touched off Egypt's revolution. He says he was anticipating a breakthrough -- hoping that the protest would not be instantly dispersed by riot police, like so many previous marches. "On that day I thought that if everybody does their part, we will have tens of thousands," he recalled. "What happened was a shock to me. Instead of tens of thousands, there were hundreds of thousands." After years of living as beleaguered dissidents, Salah and his fellow organizers were suddenly swamped by an outpouring of pent-up emotion.

Arrested early the next morning by Hosni Mubarak's security forces, Salah was beaten and detained for three days. Later, he was shot in the head with a rubber bullet in Cairo's Tahrir square. But he never doubted that the revolution would succeed. "I came out of jail and saw that the spirit of the people was incredible," he said. "People were willing to do anything to help each other -- they were putting their lives on the line every day. And that spirit is still there."

Like a lot of the revolution's leaders, Salah is nevertheless convinced that the clear demands of the protesters -- for the dismantling of the Mubarak autocracy and a transition to full democracy -- are slowly being smothered by the generals who took power in what amounted to a coup the day before Mubarak's Feb. 11 resignation. The military council has selectively consulted, but failed to include, leaders of the rebellion in its administration; it communicates mainly through preemptory communiques.

Over the weekend, a council of lawyers appointed by the generals delivered a series of hastily drafted constitutional amendments that would allow for more democratic elections for president and parliament -- but not a really free political competition. Requirements for president appear tailored to exclude some longtime regime opponents. Emergency laws allowing detentions without trial have not been lifted, and so far only one new political party -- a moderate Islamic group -- has been legalized.

Salah, noting that the military appointed a former Islamist to head the committee to reform the constitution and included a member of the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, believes the generals have made a de facto alliance of convenience with the Islamists against their mutual antagonist -- the secular liberal democrats who led the revolution.

"There is an agenda that meets both of their interests," Salah said. "That is to hold an election too soon, as the military is insisting." News reports on Monday said the regime planned to hold a parliamentary vote as early as June and a presidential election by September. "The result will be that elements of the former regime will be able to manipulate the competition and get the results they want. And the other big winner will be the Muslim Brotherhood -- because of all the divisions and political fights that are affecting the rest of the opposition, which hasn't had a chance to organize."

This is where the United States comes in. Salah says he and other young democrats see two ways of pressing the military to change its plans. One is the still-energized populace, which can be called out for more mass demonstrations. The other, he says, is the United States, because of its role as a close ally and supplier of money and weapons to the Egyptian army.

Salah, who is meeting officials at the State Department and White House, says he is not suggesting blunt U.S. pressure on the generals but "positive conditionality." The United States, in conjunction with its allies, should offer more aid -- even a big reconstruction program or debt write-off -- for the Egyptian transition. But the condition should be that Egypt's army "implement the people's platform."

It's pretty clear, Salah says, what that is. First, the prime minister left by Mubarak should be dismissed with his cabinet, and the military should hand power to a transitional government headed by a nonpartisan judge, or a coalition of opposition and military figures. The emergency law should be lifted, political activity legalized and political prisoners -- there are still hundreds -- released. Most important, elections for parliament should be postponed at least a year so that secular and democratic opposition parties will have a fair chance to organize.

The Obama administration has an obvious interest in supporting this agenda -- and to its credit it has been pushing both in public and in private for later elections and the lifting of political restrictions. But maybe it is not pushing hard enough; the administration clearly wants to preserve its relationship with the military.

Salah says he understands that -- but that if the generals don't move, American interests will suffer along with Egypt's democratic aspirations. "If the military does not accept what the people clearly want it is going to lead to violence," he said. "It is going to lead to conflict. It is going to lead to chaos. And it will empower people who want extremist solutions."

By Jackson Diehl  | March 1, 2011; 10:51 AM ET
Categories:  Diehl  | Tags:  Jackson Diehl  
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