Egypt's journalists are going on strike Sunday in protest over the upcoming draft press and publications law, and the Kefaya movement is calling for a boycott of those papers which do publish. Even though it formally bans the imprisonment of journalists under some conditions, it fails to deliver on the broader range of reforms Mubarak promised, and fails to abolish imprisonment for "libel". The latter is particularly relevant after the sentencing of al-Dustour editor Ibrahim Eissa to a year in prison for publishing a story about a lawsuit alleging corruption by the Mubarak family - on the grounds that this insulted the President and harmed the nation - has sent chills through the press corps and the activist community. (update - the story was featured on July 3's al-Jazeera episode of Behind the News, giving it even wider regional play)
Egyptian political society has every reason to worry that the letter and the spirit of the new law will be draconian, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, and repressive. The Press Syndicate says that it was not allowed to read the bill in advance or offer amendments (though given the fate of the hotly contentious judicial bill, in which none of the reformists' amendments were adopted, that might not actually matter). One Islamist newspaper describes the bill as "defending corrupt people and punishing instead journalists" - which could lead to jail for members of the Kefaya movement who just released a potentially explosive report on corruption which named names. Whatever the case, it's part and parcel of an institutionalized retrenchment by an authoritarian Egyptian regime which clearly feels that it has taken the opposition's best shot, and doesn't need to worry about its American flank.
Americans who don't much mind fierce crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood should recognize that, as in Jordan and most other Arab countries, the problems of popular Islamist movements and democratic reform are indivisible. Authoritarian Arab regimes will use their brutal methods against Islamist and liberal foes alike, and it's foolish to think that the United States can tolerate the one and not expect the other. Huwayda Taha, in al-Quds al-Arabi, describes a Cairo which away from the press conferences and television screens is sinking into despair and political apathy. This matches what I've been hearing privately from those involved in Egyptian political activist circles.
I guess it's not a secret that America under the Bush administration has effectively given up on democracy promotion and reform in the region. Arab leaders and activists know it, at least. Tunisia is currently escalating its already extremely harsh repression of its media. Jordan is sinking deeper into a dangerous confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, triggered by its arrest of four MPs for publicly expressing their opinions. The elected Hamas government has been shattered by the ongoing crisis, with a sizable portion of its ministers and Parliamentarians now in Israeli jails. Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh has recanted on his pledge to not stand for re-election. Algeria's President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika is seeking a referendum to amend the Constitution to allow him to stand for a third term (Faisal al-Qassem's popular al-Jazeera talk show the other day was dedicated to the question "will Arab leaders ever step down?" The answer seems to be no, but at least he's asking the question.) And so on, across the board. Kuwait's election is at least one small positive sign, a victory for the reformists in that country - though it was Islamists who scored the strongest in those elections as well.
Two recent Arab talk shows capture the new Arab mood well. On al-Arabiya last week, Hisham Milhem led a discussion on "Bush and democracy in the Arab world." While the show included Joshua Moravcik, Mark Tushnet, Nagib al-Ghadiban, and Salameh Nimaat, I was most struck by a remark by Amr Hamzawy. He pointed that the fact that most of the Arab media and political class were now discussing the "retreat" of American commitment to democracy demonstrates that at least at one point they were prepared to entertain the thought that there had been some credibility to that campaign. No longer, Hamzawy argued - America's turn away from democracy and reform had badly hurt its image and its credibility with this Arab political class (by which I think he means something very similar to my "new Arab public"). This seemed to be a well-received notion.
Meanwhile, on al-Jazeera Ghassan bin Jidu hosted a fascinating discussion on the margins of the Sanaa Conference on Democracy and Reform. Bin Jidu invited former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, former Bahraini minister Ali Fakhru, Abd al-Malik Khalafi of the Arab Nationalist Conference, and Scott Carpenter from the State Department (along with an impressive audience of conference participants) to talk about "Reform and freedom of expression in the Arab world." Once again, the discussion revolved around lost American credibility, and the harm to America's image in the Arab world by its claims to support democracy and subsequent failures to do so. As is typical, virtually nobody in this hour long program questioned the value of democracy or the need for reform - their complaints were about its failures. Carpenter tried his best, and it's good that an American voice took part in the discussion, but the overall sense of an America which had lost all credibility in its talk of promoting democracy in the region was clear.
This is a hidden cost of public diplomacy. Raising expectation with popular talk about promoting democracy and reform and then disappointing them has immeasurable costs. Credibility, once lost, is hard to regain. In an eloquent statement, Fakhru warned the American officials in the room that "their words are not heard" and their efforts at public diplomacy are wasted because they are contradicted by the practices in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and so forth. There's still a very strong current in Arab political debate today which demands democratic reform and change - indeed, Fakhro denounced the idea that democratic change in the region had anything to do with American efforts as "empty talk". But the moment for America to be able to benefit from that impulse may well be past, at least for this administration.