||Almost two years ago, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a lecture at the American University in Cairo that came to symbolize the Bush administration's unprecedented agenda of democracy promotion in the Middle East. The Egyptian government, she told her audience of students and activists, must respect the rule of law and the will of its citizens, and move - albeit gradually - toward greater democracy.
Last week, the secretary returned to Egypt, but this time there was no mention of democracy or even of a hint of criticism at the growing repression since her last visit. Instead, Rice heaped praise on the country's autocratic rulers for their support of US foreign policy in the region. "Stability, not democracy" is once again America's priority in the Middle East.
Truth be told, the Bush administration's democracy agenda never went beyond nice words, so its demise will change little on the ground in Egypt, or the Arab world more broadly. But I wonder if, instead of parlaying with the country's geriatric autocrats, Rice could have met the young Egyptians I spent time with only a few weeks before her visit, would she have so easily betrayed their dreams, and with them what little goodwill the average Egyptian still has toward the United States?
If she had taken the time to watch the videos I was shown by Egyptian friends (which are now circulating on the Internet) of a young bus driver, Imad el-Kabir, being sodomized with a broomstick by the police, or the still-nameless woman beaten while suspended upside down between two chairs, could Rice have stood next to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and thanked him for his government's help "on issues of common interest"?
If she could have spent an hour with the members of the burgeoning heavy-metal scene, many of whose members are sons (or daughters) of generals and diplomats, would she understand why these children of the elite have given up on the hope of political change? Why some are so scared that they won't even allow me to publish the names of the bands for fear the mukhabarat, or security services, might think they have political implications? Would the billions of dollars the United States bestows on Egypt each year in payment for its government's half-hearted support for the US military and diplomatic adventures still seem worth it?
If she had met with Egypt's leading bloggers, or activists with the Kefaya ("Enough!" in Arabic) movement, she would have learned of the "pinpoint violence" deployed by the government to silence political opposition and censor the Internet, even as President Hosni Mubarak brags about the new wired cities he's building in the desert for Egypt's elite. Would Rice still consider Egypt a model for progress and stability in the Middle East?
I could have introduced her to the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Cairo branch, who would have explained that Sayid Qutb, the Salafis and al-Azhar led the Brotherhood astray from its cultured beginnings, and argued that "what we need to combat the militants is more freedom of speech, more trained judges, more human rights". Or invited her to coffee with the editor of the Brotherhood's website, 20 years his junior, who declared, "If I fight just for myself and my rights, then I'll never get them. Only if and when I'm ready to fight for everyone's rights can I hope to have my full rights as a religious Muslim in Egypt."
Then again, he might have asked the secretary for her help to confront the regime, "not to impose sharia or wage jihad against the West or Israel, but to bring real democracy and social justice to Egypt". So perhaps it's better she didn't meet him.
Most of all, I wish Rice could have joined me for my late-night chat at the home of Shady and Nour, the teenage sons of jailed presidential candidate Ayman Nour, who is still rotting in prison despite (or perhaps because of) the tepid show of support for him by the US State Department. The two boys have dealt with the ordeal of their father's arrest, trial and imprisonment by forming one of the best up-and-coming metal bands in Egypt. "It helps us deal with the anger since our father's arrest, and to convert it to useful forms."
The government warned the senior Nour that it might arrest Shady and Nour as Satanists - in 1997 well over 100 musicians and fans were arrested under similar charges - if he wasn't more cooperative. The reason they are so threatening is that Shady and Nour represent a powerful alternative identity, and through it, future for Egypt - at once fully Egyptian, Arab and Muslim (unlike most metalheads the world over, they are openly religious), yet fully engaged and comfortable with Western, and specifically American, culture and ideals.
I wish Rice could have seen the face of their mother, Gamilla, when I met her at 3 in the morning as she returned home, exhausted but defiant, from another long night researching a story on government corruption. If the secretary understood how Gamilla splits her time among fighting for her husband's release, fighting corruption as an investigative journalist, and videotaping her sons' concerts from the mosh pit, I wonder if she'd be so quick to authorize the next $2 billion in aid to the Mubarak government. It's a good thing she didn't meet her either.
In her public remarks at the end of her trip, Rice once again declared that the United States "greatly values ... [the] important strategic relationship" with Egypt, and even thanked Mubarak "for spending so much time with me". Such craven coddling of one of the world's oldest and most authoritarian regimes while Ayman Nour, Imad el-Kabir and untold other Egyptians remain behind bars is morally unconscionable. And it confirms al-Qaeda's argument that the US continues to care not a wit about the human and political rights of ordinary Muslims.
In his cave somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Osama bin Laden is surely smiling.
Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies, University of California-Irvine, and author of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld, 2005)