Friday, March 24, 2006

The End for the State of Emergency?

Recent comments from Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif indicates that the State of Emergency, in effect since Sadat's assassination more than two decades ago, may soon come to an end. Amnesty International, and Egyptian reformers, have long expressed concerned that the provisions under the State of Emergency are at the core of many human rights abuses.

Nazif was quoted last week in an interview with Reuters that the State of Emergency would be lifted once parliament passes a law giving the government adequate resources to fight terrorism. Here's the story from the interview.

Egypt's emergency legislation severely restricts freedom of expression, association and assembly. The Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958 as amended) empowers President Mubarak to impose censorship and to order the closure and confiscation of newspapers on grounds of "public safety" and "national security", and anyone considered "a threat to national security and public order" can be detained indefinitely without charge or trial.

Unfortunately, the prime minister's comments are not necessarily a positive sign. It would not be surprising if the government merely substitutes legislative authority for human rights abuses for its current State of Emergency powers. The focus of the debate can not be simply on eliminating the State of Emergency, but also on the abuses that came from it. Any legislation that extends the government's powers to censor, to detain without charge or trial, to hold incommunicado (increasing the possibility of torture) and the use of extraordinary military or security or emergency courts must be opposed. If this happens, it will be just another example of the Mubarak government's effort to provide sham reform in lieum of the real thing.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Look to the NGOs

Does the future of Egyptian reform lie with the opposition political parties? Recent events suggest the answer is no.

Last year’s parliamentary elections left only the Muslim Brothers as a significant organized political force, even though its organization remains officially banned. Every other political party is lacking a significant presence in the parliament. Many others are facing leadership problems. Some of these come from undemocratic leadership within the party; in other case, sectarian divisions within the party are worsening the situation.

This is unfortunate, but it has to be added that one thing the Mubarak government has learned to do skillfully is to encourage such divisions in the opposition, through harassment, enticements and other tactics. The prime example is its treatment of Ayman Nour, the leader of al-Ghad (Tomorrow), who went from being runner-up in the presidential race to a five-year jail sentence on forgery charges, charges that appear to be political motivated by the government.

But if we look away from the parties, there is reason for optimism. Look to the NGOs. The judges’ demonstration last week is a timely example of how people outside the political system are not being cowered. As the opposition political parties struggle for survival, the Egyptian tradition of an independent civil society is showing its strength. They too, of course, face harassment, much as do the political parties. It wasn't long ago that one of the important NGO institutions, the el Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and Domestic Violence, was being threatened with being shut down by the government. The hated NGO law is still in force, giving the government incomprehensible authority over their funding, governance and activities.

The strength of the NGOs vs. opposition political parties raises the issue of whether international and U.S. priorities should be for democracy or for human rights. In fact, the need to support the NGOs gives priority to an emphasis on human rights. That can be justified on the basis of where there is a foundation of human rights and civil society, democracy will follow, but the reverse is not necessarily true.

My belief is that the focus of reformers efforts should be to create space and support for the NGOs to do their work. This doesn't mean turning our back on the opposition political parties; but right now civil society work is likely to produce more results.

Here's what a recent article in the Arab Reform Bulletin says about the issue.

Here's what Amnesty International said about civil society in Egypt in 2000.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Action Item: Academic Detained for Challenging Mainstream Religious Views

An appeal by Amnesty International:

“I demand his release,” said Um Saleh, wife of Mitwalli Ibrahim Mitwalli Saleh. Speaking to AI in July 2005, she explained how her husband had been on hunger strike since June in protest against his continued detention in Wadi El-Natroun prison about 100 km northwest of Cairo. “Mitwalli was not seen by any doctor although he is diabetic and is suffering from high blood pressure,” she said. “For 20 days the prison authorities did not inform the Public Prosecutor about his hunger strike.” His health deteriorated so rapidly that he was transferred to the prison hospital. He is now held at the Al-Wadi al-Gadid prison in southern Egypt.

Mitwalli Ibrahim Mitwalli Saleh, father of three, was arrested on 18 May 2003 at his home in Giza by State Security Intelligence officers following the discovery of his unpublished religious study. The study challenges Islamic scholarly views on apostasy and marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. With degrees in Islamic law and Arabic language, Mitwalli Ibrahim Mitwalli Saleh used the disciplines of linguistics and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) to refute two opinions common among mainstream Muslim scholars: that it is a religious duty to kill “apostates” who reject Islam, and that a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim man.

Two months after his arrest he was charged with “contempt of the Islamic religion”, a criminal offence under Egypt’s Penal Code carrying a prison sentence of six months to five years.

On 29 October 2003 the prosecution decided to drop the charges and release Mitwalli Ibrahim Mitwalli Saleh. However, the Interior Ministry placed him under administrative detention. Since then, the (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court has ruled seven times in his favour, ordering his release, but none of these decisions has been implemented.

Please write, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Mitwalli Ibrahim Mitwalli Saleh, who is detained solely on account of his religious beliefs.

Send appeals to:
General Habib Ibrahim El Adly
Minister of the Interior
Ministry of the Interior
Al-Sheikh Rihan Street
Bab al-Louk
Fax: +20 2 579 2031.
Email: or or

Monday, March 20, 2006

Judges demonstrate for judicial independence

Egypt has a long history of judicial independence, a fact the government has had to get around by using special courts, emergency courts and military courts to bypass the normal and legitimate judiciary. This has led to a number of concerns regarding fair trials in Egypt.

But judges also have another important role in Egypt: ensuring that elections are free and impartial. The government of course has made this an impossible responsibility, but it is one that many of the judges have taken seriously.

Now, several of the judges have decided they have had enough. Friday, members of a group of jurists known as the Judges Club demonstrated in Cairo, calling for greater judicial independence. One of the precipitating events occurred in February, when the government stripped six of the judges of their immunity and ordered that they be interrogated following their criticism of the December elections.

More than 1,000 judges and supporters are estimated to have participated in the demonstration. Some appeared with zippers across their mouths to symbolize the silencing of the judges who voiced criticism of the elections. This is the kind of demonstration that must attract the notice both of the Egyptian government, but also of the American.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Wise words from an American friend of Egypt

I found in the Middle East Times a column by William Fisher called "How to Lose Friends and Encourage Extremists." Fisher is a former AID official and an associate of a number of leading Egyptian democracy activists. He recounts how he was always proud this time of year when the State Department released its human rights report. His Egyptian colleagues would excitedly read about how the report brought political and moral authority to their cause, denouncing abuses and calling for reform.

No more. The report is still strong on many aspects of human rights and democratic reform, although as I note there's a huge gap when it comes to torture and forcible renditions in the war on terror, especially in incidents in which U.S. officials are implicated.

But to Fisher, what has changed is the moral and political context. The report may be the same, but after Abu Ghraib, European Black Sites, allegations of torture and other malfeasance's, what authority and influcence can we be in to bring to human rights criticism?

Fisher concludes by quoting a Middle Eastern friend: "We used to have someone we could count on to show our leaders how to lead by setting an example of good governance without the iron fist. It was America. Now that's gone. Now, the only people who are motivated by what America is doing are the very people it's trying to defeat - Muslim extremists."

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Amnesty blog ad on torture

Amnesty International recently has paid to post blog ads targeting conservative readers on the issue of torture. (To see the ad, click here.) The ad is bringing comments both from the right, and from the left.

This is a debate the country needs to have. I would respect the president's position a lot more if he made an argument that we needed torture and here are the conditions and the limits. But instead he's trying to derail any discussion by denying that torture is ongoing at the same time our policies fall short of international standards on torture. For example, he accepts the McCain amendment prohibiting torture, but then issues a presidential agreement stating that it doesn't apply to his presidential powers as commander-in-chief in time of war. How can we have a discussion on the subject when he prevents it at every turn?

There may be good arguments for torture. I haven't been convinced by the likes of Charles Krauthammer yet, but at least they are making coherent arguments for it. So, to quote the president, "bring it on."

Monday, March 13, 2006

Pooh in Egypt

An unusual story appeared recently in the Christian Science Monitor. It's not about human rights, but it still seems appropriate to mention here. The story is about how the US and Egyptian officials are working together to promote literacy in rural Egypt. The program aims to provide libraries of Arabic and English titles to all of Egypt's 38,000 public schools.

Literacy is a huge issue in Egypt, of course. Two thoughts here. One is some will question the use of traditional American and European stories such as "Little House on the Prairie" and "Winnie the Pooh." We should always be skeptical of cultural bias. One of my favorite Duke professors, Ariel Dorfman, made one of his first works an examination of the cultural biases of Disney characters then flooding South and Latin America. That being said, I don't see a downside on this issue. Literacy is too important an issue to ignore, and frankly, the Egyptians need assistance on it. There isn't anyone who has looked at the educational system there and not cried out for any resources to help promote literacy. In this case, the US is doing the right thing.

The second issue is that for all the attention we try to bring to human rights issues, accomplishing our goals in the long term in Egypt and elsewhere require serious attention to cultural, economic and social issues. Literacy is ultimately a human rights issue.

Trying to figure out how human rights organizations can best advance causes such as literacy is actually not an easy job. Amnesty International has struggled with this for almost a decade and will continue to do so. On one hand, we and any HR organization is threatened with spreading itself too thin, particularly at a time of limited resources. We could end up accomplishing nothing or focusing our work in areas where other organizations already are doing good work or in areas where we can't accomplish things. That's an argument for a narrow focus on those issues that we do particularly well.

On the other hand, on literacy, AIDS and other similar issues, all the human rights work seems always precariously in danger of being swept away by tides of social and economic pressures. There are times we seem to repeat the same work over and over with new names and faces at the center, never being able to move forward in a real way because other issues make it impossible.

There's no easy answer. I don't believe human rights organizations should become literacy organizations. But somehow it has to be integrated into the work.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Crackdown Continues

Promises of political reform in Egypt seem to drift farther away as we get from the past year's elections. This week, the Muslim Brothers announced more of its members arrested. One of the more notable was a journalist known at the "Brotherhood's Reuters." Abdel Monem Mahmoud surrendered to security forces after the police allegedly surrounded his house and threatened to take his family hostage.

It's the second arrest for Mahmoud. Shortly after the arrest, a government-controlled agency that oversees the nation's printing presses shut down the Afaq Arabia newsweekly which is run by al-Ahrar Party and expresses the views of the Muslim Brotherhood. No reason was given by the government.

All this comes just two days after the U.S. State Department again repeated its claim that Egyptians have little or not ability to affect its government's policies. Around the region, elections are bringing change to the Middle East. But not in Egypt.

The Washington Post notes this week that Gamal Mubarak is taking on yet again more responsibilities in which more and more looks like he is being groomed for power following his father. Says one political commentator about whether Gamal is in line for the presidency, "I don't see anyone who can stop him."

Just a normal week for a country where power remains in the hands of an authoritarian government and the democratic aspirations of the people remain a dream.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

State Department Bashes Egypt's HR Record

The State Department report on Egyptian human rights abuses, came out today. It is a strong one, but with one gaping and significant hole.

As in past years, the report strongly condemns a range of human rights abuses in Egypt. These include torture, deaths in detention, harassment of political opponents and religious and social minorities, limits on freedom of speech and association and issues of impunity related to security forces and police. On these issues, the State Department report is comprehensive and strong. These issues mirror the concerns of Amnesty International.

But there is one a worrisome gap in the report on abuses coming out of the war on terror. Amnesty International has increasingly been concerned that the U.S. government has stood by and in several incidents actively encouraged human rights abuses by Egyptian officials in the war on terror. This is particularly true on the issue of renditions. Here are four cases that Amnesty has raised in this capacity. None of these are mentioned in the State Department report:

Abdulsalam al-Hela: Abdulsalam al-Hela a 34-year old businessman from Sana’a, Yemen. Abdulsalam al-Hela was abducted in Egypt and held in secret detention in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay, where he remains to this day.

Abu Omar (formerly known as Osama Nasr Mostafa Hassan): according to reports allegedly he was abducted on a street in Milan and allegedly driven to the US air base in Aviano, Italy, where he was interrogated and drugged before being taken to the US military base in Ramstein in Germany. From there he was flown to Egypt, where he was allegedly tortured, including with electric shocks. Although released in 2004 he was rearrested and remains held in an unknown place of detention, there are substantiated reports that he may again be currently detained in Damanhour prison, Egypt, where he may be at risk of torture or ill-treatment.

Mamdouh Habib, Arrested in Pakistan and transferred to Egypt, where he was tortured, then transferred to Guantánamo Bay. After almost three years in Guantánamo, Mamdouh Habib was released on January 28, 2005 and sent to Australia.

Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad El-Zari: Two Egyptian asylum-seekers, Ahmed Hussein Mustafa Kamil ‘Agiza and Muhammad Muhammad Suleiman Ibrahim El-Zari, were deported from Sweden to Egypt in December 2001. The men were bundled onto a US government-leased plane by masked US security agents who had reportedly hooded, shackled and drugged them. The Swedish authorities said they had obtained ‘diplomatic assurances’ from the Egyptian authorities that the two men would not be harmed. They were held incommunicado for five weeks before Swedish diplomats visited them and were allegedly tortured in Egyptian custody.

Obviously, these are just the cases we know of. The secrecy involved in the war on terror can lead us only to guess how many other cases there are. We believe that the failure of the report to stand up to the abuses in the war on terror, even if the U.S. government is complicit, will undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the report. It is hard to condemn torture by Egyptian officials, as the State Department report does, if on the other hand, we are turning over prisoners to them to be tortured. If we are arranging for the secret detention of prisoners, it is hard to condemn the Egyptians for doing the same.

One last issue: The State Department, as in the past, is again quiet on the issue of the death penalty in Egypt. AI believes the death penalty is a human rights abuse and calls upon all nations to end capital punishment.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The 30-day Dance

More than a dozen members of the Muslim Brothers have been arrested over the past four days, indicating another crackdown on the largest political opposition group in Egypt.

Thus starts a peculiar and tragic dance under the spell of the State of Emergency legislation. It's a typical form of Egyptian harassment, designed to ensure a whiff of legality to blatant authoritarian activity. The prosecutors hold the political opponents for 30 days without charges. That detention can be renewed an unlimited amount of time. Often the prisoners are unaware of the status of their case. On a few occasions, the prisoners aren't even released even in the rare situations in which the courts order their release.

This can gone on for a long time. In the case of Amnesty International-adopted prisoners such as lawyer
Abd al-Mun‘im Mohammad al-Srougi, he has been detained since 1990 without any charge at all. In other cases, such as Gihan Ibrahim 'Abd al-Hamid, held for three years on suspicion of being a member of the Islamic Group, she found herself suddenly in an unfair trial without any recourse to an adequate defense.

That's why before there's any serious talk of reform in Egypt, I want to see the government end the State of Emergency. If the 30-day Dance ends, that will be one important sign that real reform is here.

Here's the report on the MB arrests from the Middle East Times:

"Egypt arrested five more members of the Muslim Brotherhood on March 5, a security source said, as the government continued its crackdown on the country's main opposition group. Security forces picked up the five in Giza, near the capital, and Ismailiya, northeast of Cairo, just a day after the banned-but-tolerated group announced the arrest of 11 of its members.

State security prosecution on March 5 charged them with plotting to "revive the group's activities" and ordered that they be detained for 15 days pending further investigations, judicial sources said. The Brotherhood, which fielded candidates as independents in legislative polls last year, won a record number of seats in parliament, taking 88 of the 454 seats up for grabs."

Monday, March 06, 2006

Have they no shame?

The Mubarak regime's harassment of Ayman Nour has reached a new low. According to a jailhouse interview with Nour in today's Chicago Tribune, the Egyptian government has found a new way to put pressure on the man who came in second place to Mubarak in last year's presidential race: Now they are threatening his wife.

"Last week, as [Nour's wife Gameela] Ismail prepared to travel to Washington on a private trip, she was charged with assaulting a police officer and destruction of property. She canceled her trip," according to the article.

"[She] is accused of beating a policeman so badly at a political rally last year that he need three weeks of medical care. She was also charged with destroying the officer's video camera during the rally. Ismail has denied all the charges."

The charges already have prevented her from attention a conference on women and democracy in the Middle East.

Of course, harassing family members of political opponents isn't new. Family members of Islamists have routinely been detained in hopes of convincing wanted men to surrender. Others have been arrested simply for their association with suspects.

Routinely, the arrest of these individuals are accompanied by a vicious campaign of disinformation in the government-controlled press. This was what happened to Nour and to Saad Ibrahim. The attack is complete and ruinous. Nour's political career is probably over, and now his two children are faced with the loss of their mother as well as their father.

At the end of the interview, Gameela makes a statement that should stand at the Mubarak motto: "
If you are the opposition, they want to eat you."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Forcing Democracy?

Robert Kaplan, a writer I admire, has started some talk with a column in today's Post called "We Can't Force Democracy." It is an argument for caution, claiming that destablizing undemocratic regimes, particularly in the Middle East, does the cause of the region and of democracy no favor. "Stabilizing newly democratic regimes, and easing the development path of undemocratic ones, should be the goal for our military and diplomatic establishments. The more cautious we are in a world already in the throes of tumultuous upheaval, the more we'll achieve."

It is an argument that isn't wrong. It is one, however, that misses the main issues facing democracy activists in the region.

Let's start with the premise. It's not clear at all that America is "forcing" democracy on the region. Our efforts seem to consist of a few bucks thrown to democracy activists in some interesting initiatives and some bully pulpit statements from the president. Taking Egypt as an example, if there is an example of the U.S. government having any kind of wrestling match with the Mubarak regime on any political issue of real importance to Mubarak, I'm missing it. If there is any example of the U.S. forcing the Mubarak regime to change its policy on any domestic policy of importance, I'm missing it. The State of Emergency is still in effect, the last I checked. Torture remains systemmatic. Political opponents and religious and cultural minorities remain jailed and harassed. And while there have been strong pro-democracy statements coming out of the White House, they have been counter-balanced by policies, such as renditions of Egyptians, that actually encourage human rights abuses.

No, any progress for democracy in the region has come from the internal work of activists there. That's true in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt. If change continues to come, it will be again because of the work they are doing. Kaplan's biggest flaw in his argument is the narrow concentration on what Washington is doing. We are blind to the work of the activists in these countries. We don't know their names or where they have come from or what they want. A few names from Egypt -- Saad Ibrahim and Ayman Nour, for example -- get thrown out into the U.S. press at a moment of crisis, as if they have sponteanously appeared, regardless of the decades of accomplishments and efforts and ignoring the many other people doing similar work.
It stands to reason that these people would be more effective because they, unlike the U.S. government, pose a real threat to the Middle East regimes. Not an immediate threat, but a future one, one that can be seen. I keep hearing about how much aid we give these countries and it should be used as leverage. I don't see it. We don't give that much, we never take it away, and if we did, the people would suffer rather than the government. It is little matter to the Mubarak regime.

I don't want to exaggerate the power of the democracy activists -- although the ability of those in Lebanon to bring a change of government was truly breathtaking. In Egypt, the government holds most of the strength. But people there are learning how to use the tools they have, as we have seen in the past election, and this clearly frightened the Mubarak regime into acting. If there is one group that we can count on being cautious in introducing democracy in the Middle East, it is the regimes themselves.

You are right, Robert Kaplan; the United States can't and shouldn't force democracy in the region. But neither can it stop it.