Q Mr. President, President Bush, the First Lady under the Egyptian pyramids this week enthusiastically endorsed Mubarak's first steps towards direct presidential elections. Two days later, Mubarak supporters attacked the opposition in the streets. Was it premature to back Mubarak? What's your message to Mubarak now?
PRESIDENT BUSH: I also embraced President Mubarak's first steps and said that those first steps must include people's ability to have access to TV, and candidates ought to be allowed to run freely in an election and that there ought to be international monitors. That's -- and the idea of people expressing themselves in opposition in government, then getting a beating, is not our view of how a democracy ought to work. It's not the way that you have free elections. People ought to be allowed to express themselves, and I'm hopeful that the President will have open elections that everybody can have trust in.
I don't think Hosni Mubarak is quaking in his stylish yet affordable boots over Bush's comment that this is "not our view of how a democracy out to work" - actual criticism, in a statement rather than in the last answer to a press conference on a different subject, might have been stronger. Or concrete actions, even. One casual Bush remark in a press conference won't solve everything, any more than did Rice's intervention on behalf of Ayman Nour earlier in the year - especially if there is no follow-up. But it's a start, and I commend Bush for saying the right thing here.
And it matters. Here is a sampling of headlines in the Arab press today:
Al-Sharq al-Awsat: "Egypt's referendum: 83% approve, and Bush criticizes the attacking of protestors."
Al-Hayat: "Egypt: Participation in the referendum represents limited numbers, and Bush calls for tolerance and freedom of opinion and assembly."
Al-Quds al-Arabi: "Washington condemns the attacks on the opposition in Egypt and Kifaya accuses the police of sexual atrocities against female protestors."
Al-Wafd (center-right Egyptian opposition paper): "International and American condemnation for the referendum scandal: Bush calls for free elections in Egypt.. and the White House calls for trials of those who attacked the protestors."
Al-Arabiya: "America calls for prosecution of members of the ruling party in Egypt for attacks on femal protestors... Bush condemns the policy attacks against those protesting against the referendum."
Al-Jazeera: "Bush criticizes the Egyptian government and the opposition doubts the results of the referendum."
Moral of the story: if America does the right thing, it can and does get the benefit of the doubt in the Arab media. No lesson could be more important for thinking about public diplomacy. It is really worth reflecting on this, given the relatively tepid nature of Bush's criticism of Egypt and the fervent embrace of those comments by virtually the entire Arab media - across the political spectrum, from al-Arabiya to al-Jazeera, from al-Sharq al-Awsat to al-Quds al-Arabi. Forget about building a lousy television station that nobody watches, forget about spin, forget about advertising and public relations. Say the right thing, do the right thing, and Arabs will in fact notice and give the U.S. a chance.
(side note: Egypt's semi-official paper al-Ahram's headline declared that the successful referendum "sent a message to the world about Egypt's ability to progress towards democracy under Mubarak's leadership." Thankfully, the world's media didn't bite, and rejected that message. Pictures of women and men peacefully protesting being beaten up by government thugs spoke a bit more powerfully this time. I think.)