Last month former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright visited Egypt on a fact-finding mission for the Council on Foreign Relations. While there, she met with officials and civil society leaders, including an opposition member of Egypt's parliament, Ayman Nour, who heads a new political party called El Ghad, or Tomorrow. In his assessment of the situation in Egypt, Nour was sharply critical of President Hosni Mubarak's failing policies.
Shortly afterward -- as soon as Albright and company had left -- the parliament met in emergency session to approve a government-sponsored motion stripping Nour of his parliamentary immunity. Minutes later, as he was leaving the parliament building, he was arrested by members of the notorious State Security Agency. His home and party headquarters were raided and searched, and computers and many of his papers were seized.
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In the days that followed, the state-controlled media competed in denouncing Nour, calling him a crook and accusing him of forgery and of lying about the membership of his party. The state security prosecutor ordered him held in solitary confinement for 45 days.
As I followed this story from the United States, I was vividly reminded of my own arrest and detention at the hands of the same state security forces five years ago. At midnight on June 30, 2000, more than 30 armed agents stormed into my house, arrested me and carted away personal computers, family property and personal papers. Twenty-seven of my research associates at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies were also rounded up. All of us were detained without bail for 45 days. Again, the state-controlled media had a field day with character assassination -- I was alleged to have embezzled millions of dollars, spied for foreign powers and -- just as now with Ayman Nour -- to have defamed the image of Egypt abroad.
It took three years, two sham trials before state security courts and one real trial by Egypt's High Court of Cassation before all 28 of us were finally acquitted of all charges. In our highly publicized case, the ultimate High Court ruling contained a sharp reprimand to the Egyptian investigative authorities for having fabricated the case. It went even further, and certainly beyond the call of judicial duty, to criticize the political arrangements that give inordinate power to the presidency.
Why does the Mubarak regime continue to resort to these heavy-handed tactics against its peaceful opposition? Here is an attempted answer. Over nearly a quarter of a century, it has perfected the art of scare politics, at home and abroad. Those in Mubarak's regime argue that if he allowed democratization to proceed unchecked, with fair and honest elections, Islamists would undoubtedly take over.
None of his Western listeners ever answer this argument with some very pertinent questions: What, Mr. Mubarak, have you done to preserve the popularity of non-Islamist forces in the country? What has your regime done with more than $100 billion in foreign aid and remittances from Egyptians working abroad? Why has Egypt's ranking during your rule steadily worsened on every development index -- from that of the U.N. Development Program to the World Bank to Freedom House? And why does Egypt now rank with Russia, Syria and Nigeria among the most corrupt countries in the world?
Isn't it these dismal failings that feed popular discontent and contribute to the Islamists' growing numbers? And isn't it Mubarak's repression of secular civil forces that has kept the field empty for the Islamists in Egypt, where there are now more than 100,000 mosques where they can freely preach their message -- but only a handful of registered political parties and human rights groups?
Recently, as calls for political liberalization mounted from pro-democracy activists such as Ayman Nour and from the Group of Eight initiative for the Middle East, Mubarak has geared up his propaganda machine. The newspapers and newscasters now repeat endlessly the argument that economic reform and a settlement of the Palestinian question must take precedence -- as if a choice has to be made between these things and a genuinely democratic government for Egypt. (Lately Mubarak has added Iraq to this priority policy list.)
The free and fair elections in Iraq and Palestine, which would have to be regarded as premature by this standard -- both countries are, after all, under military occupation -- must have come as something of an embarrassment to Mubarak.
Western countries owe Egypt's budding democratic movement their attention and support. I was dismayed by the faint "we take note'" reaction of State Department spokesman Richard Boucher to Nour's arrest and the trumped-up charges against him. There are hundreds of dissidents like Nour in Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia -- the three countries that are at the hard core of Arab authoritarianism.
President Bush has repeated that the United States will stand by those who work for freedom in their countries. Scores of courageous Arab dissidents have taken a stand for freedom, and many face pending trials or have spent years in prison. But the United States has yet to be heard from in their defense.
What we have so far from George W. Bush is fine language in his inaugural and State of the Union speeches. That message was loud and clear. The credibility of the messenger is what is still in doubt.
The writer is an Egyptian democracy activist and a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. He is currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writing his prison memoirs.