Al Jazeera is reporting that the outspoken American ambassador to Egypt, David Welch, met with Rifa'at al Said, spokesman for the Egyptian opposition parties, yesterday. Here's a short English language report; othing about it on the US Embassy in Cairo web page yet; nor has it turned up anywhere on Google News.
According to Said, the meeting went on for several hours and ranged widely over questions of democracy in Egypt and the status of political reform. This was the first (publicly acknowledged) meeting of the kind in many years - and, in my opinion, an important and positive step. If this signals a more serious commitment to direct dialogue with the Egyptian opposition as part of a real pressures towards political reform, then good for David Welch and the State Department. Rifa'at Said and the opposition have really been pushing lately for reforms such as finally lifting the period of 'state of emergency' which has been in force since Sadat's assassination in 1981, having genuinely contested Presidential elections rather than a referendum, allowing public opposition rallies, and invigorating the rule of law.
The typical sequence of events would now be a Mubarak crackdown, complete with a public offensive led by the state-owned media denouncing American interference in internal affairs, followed by American acquiescence and backing off. So let's hope that Welch's public meeting with Said is a signal of a new approach. If the Bush administration is serious about promoting reforms, this seems like an important test case. We'll see!