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Egypt's Unchecked Repression

By Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

This month marked the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of Egyptian journalist Reda Hilal. Rumors about the involvement of a secret government death squad tasked with silencing detractors of the ruling Mubarak family in this and other disappearances -- such as that of Libyan dissident Mansour Kikhia in Cairo in 1993 -- have spiked in recent weeks.

On Aug. 8, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights reported that it had confirmed more than 500 cases of police abuse since 1993, including 167 deaths -- three of which took place this year -- that the group "strongly suspects were the result of torture and mistreatment." The organization previously found that while Egypt's population nearly doubled during the first 25 years of Hosni Mubarak's regime, the number of prisons grew more than fourfold and that the number of detainees held for more than one year without charge or indictment grew to more than 20,000.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have corroborated chilling accounts of torture in Egyptian prisons. The independent daily Eldestour recently published two important facts: that the annual budget for internal security was $1.5 billion in 2006, more than the entire national budget for health care, and that the security police forces comprise 1.4 million officers, nearly four times the size of the Egyptian army. "Egypt has become a police state par excellence," the paper's editor noted.

Yet Mubarak's regime has gone unchecked for years, since long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the "war on terror" and despite the billions of dollars in foreign aid the United States continues to give Egypt each year. The question is: Why?

Part of the answer lies in Mubarak's skillful use of Egypt's role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Despite Egypt's proximity to Gaza and its potential to contribute, the regime has not advanced the status quo far beyond what the late president Anwar Sadat accomplished. Mubarak boasts about his refusal to visit Israel, while his predecessor broke ground as the first Arab leader to visit Israel.

Another reason for U.S. silence is Mubarak's exploitation of Islamophobia, rampant in many Western circles. On Mubarak's own turf, the banned opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood has steadily increased its support among voters, with its candidates, running as independents, garnering 20 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections in 2005, despite the regime's continuous harassment and arrest of Brotherhood leaders and rank-and-file members. Hamas, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006. Increasingly, in majority-Muslim countries where autocracies have bred inefficiency and corruption, populist groups such as the Brotherhood can attract a strong protest vote.

Yet in Egypt, the regime remains strong and is quick to silence critics. Recently it focused its attacks on the work of democracy activists and researchers at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which I founded nearly two decades ago. Nine members of the ruling party have filed legal requests to close the center. They want to see me and other staff members prosecuted, alleging that we have tarnished the country's image abroad, shown contempt for religion, undermined the national interest and committed high treason.

Between 2000 and 2003, the center's offices were ransacked by the State Security Agency, and 27 employees were jailed. It took three years, multiple trials and three tours in prison -- where my health deteriorated -- before Egypt's Court of Cassation, the country's sole remaining independent court, acquitted us of all charges. The egregious nature of the case led the court to rebuke those responsible, citing abuses emanating from the presidency.

More recently, similar attacks have been orchestrated against Ayman Nour, head of the Tomorrow Party, and two nephews of Anwar Sadat. The men, all members of the Egyptian parliament, were arrested on flimsy charges, tried and imprisoned. Nour is now in precarious health, and recently published photos show bruises he sustained from mistreatment while jailed.

Like other autocrats with declining legitimacy, Mubarak is trying to tighten his grip on power. His family is grooming 44-year-old Gamal to succeed his father. Any real or potential competitors, especially ones with charisma and name recognition, are to be defamed, jailed, driven from the country or otherwise eliminated. Hence the hounding of Nour, Sadat's nephews and Islamic youth leader Amr Khaled, all of whom are ambitious, popular and about Gamal Mubarak's age.

I am a 68-year-old pacifist academic in poor health. I do not fit the profile of these other men. Yet, according to regime-controlled media accounts, I am very influential with oil-rich Gulf Arabs, Hamas, Hezbollah, Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, the European Union, and, above all, the White House and the U.S. Congress. None of these media outlets admits that in my scholarly capacity as a student of social movements I see all kinds of activists and political actors.

My real crime is speaking out in defense of the democratic governance Egyptians deserve. In May, I helped organize a meeting of Arab democrats in Doha, Qatar. Soon after, I attended a conference of veteran European and Third World dissidents in Prague at which President Bush gave a speech. Afterward, Bush chatted with me and a few others for a couple of minutes. To some, this is "proof" of my "influence" in Washington. When the House Appropriations Committee voted a few days later to attach conditions -- mainly regarding political reform and tighter security of the borders with Gaza -- to the $1.3 billion annual aid package to Egypt, I was solely to blame, according to the regime. (Would that I had a fraction of the influence attributed to me by the state-controlled media!)

Sadly, this regime has strayed so far from the rule of law that, for my own safety, I have been warned not to return to Egypt. Regime insiders and those in Cairo's diplomatic circles have said that I will be arrested or worse. My family is worried, knowing that Egypt's jails contain some 80,000 political prisoners and that disappearances are routinely ignored or chalked up to accidents. My fear is that these abuses will spread if Egypt's allies and friends continue to stand by silently while this regime suppresses the country's democratic reformers.

The writer, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, is chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center. He is a visiting fellow at the Ratiu Center for Democracy in Romania.

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