By JOEL BRINKLEY
President Bush's second inaugural address, in January 2005, included rhetorical flourishes that certainly brought smiles to the faces of his speech writers as he delivered them from his podium in the House of Representatives.
But for untold thousands of Egyptians, one in particular played as a clarion call to arms.
"All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors," Bush intoned. "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
We will stand with you! At last, the United States would help them confront Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator. And with that, along with other encouraging acts, several prominent democracy advocates decided the time was right to step forward.
The regime responded with harassment, torture, prison sentences and worse. And aside from a few tepid complaints, Washington did nothing. Now these democracy advocates say Washington set them up - and then betrayed them.
"This is our fault because we believed them," said George Ishak, a leader of a small group calling for democratic change. "In 2005, we couldn't have imagined it would turn out this way."
In the United States, many people viewed Bush's Middle East democracy proclamations with appropriate cynicism. His Iraq adventure wasn't working out as planned, so why not change the subject?
Not so here.
Hala Moustafa edits a magazine called Democracy Quarterly, and she said she was thrilled when the State Department asked her to introduce Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she came here to give a speech in June 2005.
"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East," Rice told a large audience at the American University in Cairo. "Now we are taking a different course."
That was just what Moustafa and many others wanted to hear. But soon after Rice left, the secret police came to see her. They audited her books, restricted what she could write, forbid her to give interviews, followed her around town. When she spoke to a Middle East democracy conference in Washington, she chose not to even mention Egypt.
"I was subjected to a lot of pressure," she told me. "And the next time Rice came," in February 2006, "she had long meetings with the chief of intelligence" instead of democracy advocates. "Because they dropped it, they made things worse."
Ishak's organization, Kafiya, or Enough, flowered in 2005, when Mubarak, under pressure from Washington, promised to hold multi-party elections. Members flocked to the group; they held demonstrations and spoke often to the media.
The elections, of course, turned out badly. When it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group, would win a large block of seats in parliament, the Mubarak regime began harassing voters, closing polling stations, imprisoning political opponents.
Security forces have jailed Ishak twice since 2005. Now Kafiya is a runt group, riven with internecine squabbling, left to communicate its message only on a Facebook page. This week, Safwat El Sherif, a Mubarak crony who heads the upper house of Parliament, was more or less correct when he called Kafiya's Internet chatter "a hollow exercise."
The most famous victim of Washington's dalliance with Middle East democracy is Ayman Nour, a lawyer who came in a distant second to Mubarak in the presidential vote and was promptly sentenced to five years in prison for daring to challenge the dictator. Washington propped him up - then dropped him.
In early 2005 Rice actually canceled a visit to Egypt when the authorities first detained Nour. Egypt let him go. And when Rice finally came here that summer, she made a show of meeting with him.
After he was imprisoned, Washington issued rote protestations but did little else.
Nour is still in prison. His wife, Gamila Ismail, says he has diabetes and suffered a heart attack but has received no medical treatment. Last year, she made public photos of the scars and contusions left by his captors' beatings.
"We don't see them here anymore to look after Ayman Nour," Ishak told me, his voice dripping bitterness. "Because of them he may die in jail."
Today, Bush's Egyptian victims remain resentful but also perplexed. They don't understand.
"Bush just repeats the same speech, over and over," Moustafa said with a sense of bewilderment. "Something is wrong."
Ismail asks: "What is the benefit of talking about it any more? It is futile."
While Ishak talks at times about rebuilding Kafiya, at other moments he seems fatalistic. His voice low, he muttered, "everything is finished now."
© 2008, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Joel Brinkley is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. Readers may send him e-mail at: email@example.com.
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