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Repression, Egypt-Style

February 18th marked a historic day for supporters of democratic reform in the Middle East.  Egyptian democracy activist and reformist politician Ayman Nour, in prison since 2005 on flimsy charges of forging petition signatures to establish his El Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, was unexpectedly released.  Citing health reasons, the Egyptian government gave no further explanation for Nour’s sudden release, to the extent that Nour himself had no idea of his pardon until a car arrived at the prison to take him home.  Nour’s pardon may not be terribly meaningful politically, as he is now barred from running for political office given his incarceration.  Still, Nour’s release is a breath of fresh air given Egypt’s current record.

To understand the true significance of Nour’s release, though, one must first take a sober look at the Egyptian political landscape over the past several years.  Sadly, it is anything but encouraging.

Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East

For all the George W. Bush administration’s mistakes in the Middle East, it did get one thing right in its declaration of a “freedom agenda” in the region, promising to retire the de rigueur US policy of supporting autocrats in the Middle East in the name of stability.  As Condoleezza Rice declared in Cairo in 2005: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region, here in the Middle East and we achieved neither.”[1]  She added, “Now we are taking a different course.  We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people,”[2] concluding that “it is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.”[3]

This simple speech—long overdue—demonstrated a serious show of political will by the United States, which in turn catalyzed a revival of political activism in Egypt.  Talk of the “Arab spring” seemed to materialize in the form of the first ever multi-candidate presidential elections in Egypt.  Indeed, democratic reform in Egypt seemed to be gaining momentum in both governmental and non-governmental circles, as Mubarak pledged to undertake measures to widen the space for political competition and embrace human rights in the form of eliminating the emergency law.  There was much promise in the air.

Unfortunately, Arab democrats were let down after the US haphazardly did an about-face following regional elections in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq, which all indicated a significant level of popularity of Islamists; Islamist popularity in the region made rapid democratic reform too risky a proposition for the U.S.  And so, Bush’s commitment to freedom in the Middle East—ostensibly lukewarm in the first place—was functionally abandoned altogether, in the name of a myopic commitment to “stability.”  The Egyptian regime quickly capitalized on the shelving of Bush’s freedom agenda, by amplifying its repressive agenda to unprecedented levels.

New Levels of Repression

A brief overview of Egypt’s human rights record this past year alone reveals regression on several fronts.  The so-called Emergency Law that suspends several basic constitutional protections was again extended in May 2008 for another two years, despite promises made by Mubarak during his 2005 presidential campaign to repeal it. This year also witnessed heightened legislative efforts for media control and restriction as the Arab League, under the leadership of the Egyptian Minister of Information, promulgated a document “regulating” TV, radio, and satellite media.  This charter is now accompanied by a parallel Egyptian draft law regulating audio, visual, and electronic media, the substance of which is reminiscent of an Orwellian novel.

Dozens of torture cases were documented in 2008, including several resulting in fatalities, particularly for those arrested in the aftermath of the April 6 national strike and the labor protest in the city of al Mahalla.[4]  The picture on torture becomes even grimmer when one accounts for the fact that most torture cases go unreported and undetected and that torturers largely go unpunished except in a few noted highly publicized cases, thanks largely to the courage of individual bloggers who put their security on the line to expose these abuses.

Security abuses are on the rise and the independent media, previously a watchdog on many abuses, is coming under increasing attack, manifested in draconian, politically motivated prosecutions of independent journalists. Constitutional amendments in 2005 and 2007, putatively aimed at widening the political space, have in effect consolidated the reality of the one-party system while threatening the independence of the judiciary.

Recently, there have been trends undermining the independence of the judiciary, as emergency laws continue to undermine this historically respected institution notably through 3 disturbing trends: the imposition of “administrative” detention orders which supersede normal court decisions, politically motivated trials of civilians in military courts, and ‘Hisba’ lawsuits (historically traditional tools of Islamic jurisprudence meant to enhance civic participation), brought mostly by ruling NDP affiliates and abused to settle political scores against dissidents, writers and intellectuals.[5]

To use perhaps the most comical example of Hisba legislation, one only need look to the case of Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent Cairo newspaper Al-Dustur, who last year was sentenced to six months in prison for printing stories questioning the health of the Egyptian president.  According to the Hisba lawsuit against him, his reporting could potentially destabilize the entire Egyptian economy, should anyone think that President Mubarak is feeble enough to have any health problems.[6]  Eissa’s case is particularly silly, but nonetheless wholly consistent with the Egyptian regime’s insidious campaign to silence critics using ambiguous Hisba legislation, which was originally designed to encourage civic engagement in classical Islamic jurisprudence, but which has now enabled NDP loyalists—not elected officials, but private citizens with a political axe to grind—to spearhead defamation lawsuits to stifle perfectly legitimate criticism of the Egyptian regime.

In this climate of political repression, it goes without saying that dissent in Egypt isn’t taken particularly well.  As such, brave Egyptians who dared to challenge the zeitgeist were generally disposed of in relatively short order.  

Crackdown on Political Dissidents

Ayman Nour was not the sole target of Mubarak’s repression campaign.  Viable opposition to Mubarak’s rule continues to be sequestered, most notably in the case of Egyptian democracy advocate Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim.[7]  A long-time thorn in the side of the Egyptian regime, Dr. Ibrahim is no stranger to state persecution, having been incarcerated in 2000 for allegedly defaming Egypt through his contentious research.  An international outcry in the aftermath of his trial finally led to the Egyptian regime’s acquiescence, with the Egyptian High Court exonerating him of all charges in 2003.  Unfortunately, this was not the end of Dr. Ibrahim’s troubles.  Following a July 2007 meeting with President Bush in Prague, in which Dr. Ibrahim rightfully urged the President to condition Egypt’s immense aid package ($1.7 billion per year) on tangible democratic reforms, he reappeared on the NDP radar.  In response to his August 2007 op-ed column in the Washington Post criticizing Egypt’s unchecked repression,[8] Ibrahim was sentenced on August 2, 2008, in absentia, to two years hard labor for “harming Egypt’s image abroad.”[9]  Ibrahim has been in exile from Egypt since 2007, fearing immediate incarceration should he return.

Dr. Ibrahim is perhaps the most celebrated Egyptian dissident, but otherwise benign protestors have equally faced the wrath of the Egyptian regime in recent months.

Open Season on Gaza Activists—Foreign or Domestic

In the aftermath of the Israeli assault on Gaza in January, the Egyptian regime has insisted on keeping the Rafah border crossing into Gaza closed, arguing that it would only open the border once an EU presence could help establish a buffer there, per a 2005 agreement with Israel.  Consequently, medical supplies and other humanitarian necessities have been largely unable to make their way into Gaza, which in the eyes of many makes Egypt complicit in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians.  Yet the Egyptian government unhesitatingly persisted in its decision to keep the border hermetically sealed, both to keep US military aid flowing and to avoid “insurrectionary spillover” – in other words, armed Palestinians organizing in Egypt.  Keeping in mind that Hamas was originally a splinter group of the Egyptian Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), the Egyptian government is particularly wary of a Hamas influence in Egypt, as it could potentially stoke radical tendencies among the indigenous Ikhwan.

It should come as no surprise, then, that supporters of Gaza, furious with Israel’s January raid, would make the Egyptian regime an object of their animosity.  The case of Philip Rizk, a German-Egyptian filmmaker and Gaza activist, is a testament to that frustration, and conversely to Egypt’s repressive campaign against political dissidents.  After spending two years living and working in Gaza, Philip produced a short documentary film titled “This Palestinian Life,”[10] which succinctly presented a lucid yet unexaggerated account of non-violent resistance by everyday Palestinians, and did the unthinkable by humanizing those embroiled in this contentious and hotly debated conflict.  An avant-garde filmmaker, indeed, with a deeply personal stake in the situation in Gaza.

In response to Israeli military operations, Philip spearheaded a non-violent demonstration in support of Gaza on February 6.  He, along with fourteen other activists, marched from Cairo to the neighboring governorate of Qalyubiyya draped in Palestinian flags. Photographs from the protest show Philip holding a sign reading, “Al-Kayl qad tafah, iftahu ma’bar Rafah!” which loosely translates as, “Enough is Enough! Open the Rafah border crossing!” Philip and his cadre must have figured that an utterly benign protest in a relatively obscure governorate wouldn’t be considered horribly contentious to the authorities.  Sadly, they were sorely mistaken.

Following the march to Qalyubiyya, Egyptian state security personnel arrived on the scene and, after interrogating the protestors involved, haphazardly singled out Philip for questioning.  Shortly thereafter, Philip was forcibly corralled into an unlicensed white Suzuki microbus and herded off to an undisclosed location, in what amounted to a bona fide state-administered kidnapping.  For days, his whereabouts remained a mystery, without so much as a basic explanation from the Egyptian authorities for his abduction.[11]

Thankfully the international community quickly responded, and under the pressure of daily protests at the American University in Cairo and elsewhere, the Egyptian regime acquiesced and released him on February 11.  Still, the fact remains that Philip was arbitrarily abducted, with no right to due process whatever, simply for demonstrating non-violent support for Gaza.  His possession of an auxiliary passport (Philip carries dual German and Egyptian citizenship), normally considered a guarantee of immunity from the worst excesses of Egyptian police brutality, proved to be inadequate protection in this case.[12]  Moreover, despite Philip’s release, several other supporters of Gaza remain in state custody.  Shortly following Philip’s abduction, Egyptian authorities arrested an Egyptian blogger sympathetic to Palestinians, one Diaeddin Gad, who like Philip expressed indignation at Egypt’s policy towards the Rafah border.  Gad’s whereabouts as of this writing remain unknown.[13]

Moreover, while activists like Gad continue to languish in prison, a stadium full of humanitarian and medical supplies in Egyptian custody donated from abroad for the people of Gaza are merely baking in the sun, of no use to anyone, by virtue of Egypt’s Rafah border policy.  Consequently, undersupplied hospitals in Gaza struggling to care for dying patients, ill-prepared construction outfits lacking the concrete needed to repair damaged structures, and everyday Gazans unable to secure basic cooking gas, indeed have the Egyptian government to blame for their current predicament.

Egypt’s repression campaign, then, has victims extending beyond its own borders.  Its policy towards Rafah—namely as it pertains to the passage of humanitarian aid—can and should be viewed as an emanation of its authoritarian domestic policies.

Conclusion

Ayman Nour’s release is certainly encouraging, but it is paramount to recognize that his incarceration was a microcosm of a much larger trend of repression by the Egyptian security apparatus.  It seems that Nour’s release was an act of goodwill by Cairo to placate the new Obama administration, but President Obama should not be appeased by this single token gesture.  Before fully normalizing diplomatic relations with Egypt, and certainly before granting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak an audience in Washington, President Obama needs to fully exercise his diplomatic clout with Egypt, particularly when keeping in mind that the American aid package to Egypt is the largest US aid package to any country in the world, barring Israel.

Necessary prerequisites should include the acquittal of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim from all charges, a guarantee of Dr. Ibrahim’s safe return to Egypt, a repeal of the quarter-century-old Emergency Law, and an opening of the Rafah border to allow seamless transfer of humanitarian aid into Gaza.  Washington currently has the upper hand, and it’s incumbent on Obama to move beyond paying lip service to substantive democratic reform in the Middle East.  In Egypt, he has the opportunity to proactively encourage meaningful democratic transition, but doing so requires playing hardball with Cairo.  We can only hope he moves past the status quo ante paradigm of ‘stability’ and instead focuses on fostering a genuinely democratic Middle East.

Daanish Faruqi, a contributing editor to Logos, is the senior Egypt liaison for Voices for a Democratic Egypt (VDE), a DC-based NGO dedicated to democratic reform in Egypt (www.democraticegypt.org).  He can be reached at daanish@democraticegypt.org.

*A special thanks to Natalie Smolenski for her generous feedback and help with this article.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Human Rights Watch explicitly urged the need for investigations of police brutality in the aftermath of the April 6th strikes in Mahalla.  See http://www.hrw.org/ar/news/2008/04/10/egypt-investigate-police-use-force-protests

[5] For a detailed analysis of Egypt’s abuse of Hisba legislation, see Daanish Faruqi, “Egypt’s Repressive Hisba Lawsuits,” The Middle East Times 28 August 2008. http://www.metimes.com/Opinion/2008/08/28/egypts_repressive_hisba_lawsuits/4699/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dr. Ibrahim previously discussed the prospect for democracy in the Middle East during an interview with Logos: http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_4.2/ibrahim_interview.htm

[8] For the full text, see Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “Egypt’s Unchecked Repression,” Washington Post, 21 August 2007.   http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/20/AR2007082001500.html

[9] It is worth noting that Dr. Ibrahim was prosecuted under the auspices of Hisba legislation.

[10] See the film’s homepage at  http://thispalestinianlife.blogspot.com/

[11] For a more detailed analysis of Philip Rizk’s abduction and its broader implications, see Daanish Faruqi, “Open Season on Gaza Activists in Egypt,” Common Dreams, 15 February 2009. http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/02/15-0

[12] Ibid.

[13] The cheery optimism following Ayman Nour’s release was short-lived, and afterwards opposition groups shifted their attention to the continued incarceration of Diaeddin Gad.  See Joseph Mayton, “Egyptian Opposition Turns Attention to Jailed Blogger,” The Middle East Times, 25 February 2009. http://www.metimes.com/International/2009/02/25/egyptian_opposition_turns_attention_to_jailed_blogger/1325/

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