The Crackdown in Cairo

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

WITH THE TACIT consent of the Bush administration, authoritarian Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is continuing his campaign against the democratic movement that sprouted in his country last year. His latest target is the fledgling independent press, which in recent months has dared to publish stories about rampant official corruption, criticize Mr. Mubarak's promotion of his son's political career and promote the liberal democratic reforms that President Bush once advocated for Egypt. Last week Mr. Mubarak's ruling party reaffirmed a law that makes it a crime, punishable by imprisonment, to "affront the president of the republic" -- or insult parliament, public agencies, the armed forces, the judiciary or "the general public interest."

This violates a promise Mr. Mubarak made two years ago to end the jailing of journalists -- and it is more than a mere threat. On June 26 a court sentenced the editor of one of the new independent newspapers and a reporter to prison for the "crime" of having reported on a lawsuit that accused Mr. Mubarak, plausibly, of "wasting the government's resources," "squandering foreign aid" and turning "Egypt into a monarchy." (The plaintiff is also in jail.) A few weeks earlier two Egyptian bloggers covering an opposition demonstration were arrested, jailed for several weeks and brutally treated; at least one was raped in a police station.

The crackdown on the press was predictable, because it followed Mr. Mubarak's assault on opposition political parties and on a judges' reform movement -- the two other key elements of Cairo's promising Spring of 2005. In May the secular liberal candidate who ran against Mr. Mubarak for president, Ayman Nour, lost his final appeal against a five-year sentence on trumped-up charges. Hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won 20 percent of parliamentary seats in last year's elections, were arrested that month. In June the president forced through a new law on the judiciary that squashed the judges' demands for independence. That followed the prosecution of several leading jurists who had dared to denounce fraud in the elections.

The only hopeful news is that Egypt's new democratic forces are bravely resisting Mr. Mubarak's crackdown. More than two dozen newspapers suspended publication for a week this month to protest the press law; the judges are threatening their own strike. Opposition bloggers continue to work, despite the regime's assaults on them; anyone who doubts the reports of brutality can view videos, posted on the Internet, of police beating female protesters. On Sunday a prominent former member of Mr. Mubarak's party, Osama Ghazali Harb, announced the formation of a new liberal democratic political party, with the goal of fighting for the reforms that Mr. Mubarak once promised.

Those promises were made at a time when Mr. Bush was publicly pressing Egypt to "lead the way" in Arab democratization. Now, in Cairo and around the Middle East, the common view is that Mr. Bush has abandoned that policy. Each step of Mr. Mubarak's crackdown prompts a tepid demur from the State Department -- which last week meekly asked Egyptian officials "to take a look at any law that they might be considering . . . in the context of the importance of freedom of the press." High-level Egyptian-U.S. contacts have been stepped up and the administration has strongly urged Congress not to subtract a single dollar from Egypt's $2 billion in annual aid.

Egypt's democrats feel betrayed by the United States -- and rightly so. In its opening manifesto, Mr. Harb's new Democratic Front denounced the "hypocrisy of those who preach the right way but stray away from it with their actions." The words apply to George W. Bush as well as to Hosni Mubarak.


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