Monday, July 24, 2006

Lebanon's Lesson

Israel's invasion of Lebanon is putting a lot of civilians at risk, and as I have noted, Amnesty International is pointing the finger at both Israel and Hezbollah for targeting civilians. That's the human rights consideration. But I also have a political opinion, and that is Israel's invasion is a mistake. The rationale for that has a lot to do with the situation in Egypt.

My gut feeling is Hezbollah launched the attack that killed Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others with the complete understanding, the hope even, that Israel would respond with a significant military action. They saw that's what happened in Gaza the week before; they must have known it would happen to them. I think Israel did exactly what they wanted the country to do.

Hezbollah will not be destroyed militarily. It is not primarily a military movement. It came out of the 1982 Israeli invasion. It grew strength from that invasion. Movements of its type always do. Israel's military, like the Americans in Iraq, will sweep in and do a lot of damage, but in the end, Hezbollah will remain, perhaps militarily weaker for now, but stronger in the long term.

Just how much stronger will depend on what the invasion does to the new democratic government in Beirut. The best hope for destroying Hezbollah is widening and strengthening the position of the Beirut government. Since the Cedar Revolution, the government has been new and fragile and had to walk a very tight rope, but it had been maintaining its credibility and growing stronger.

I've talked a lot about the value of patience, and the difficulty of that in times of violence; but here is the classic case where patience was needed. There seems to be a consensus that Hezbollah was weakening after the Cedar Revolution. I believe that if the Cedar Revolution had the time -- and no doubt it would take five years at least -- Hezbollah would slowly die a quiet and final death through the spread of democracy and human rights. Five years is a long time in terms of having to put up with Hezbollah's abuses, but in the long scheme of history it is a short time. Hezbollah's actions against Israel were taken from a position of weakness. It needed the chaos and disorder of war to strengthen itself. My prediction, and I hope I'm wrong, is that the Cedar Revolution will be the greatest casualty of this war; if the government fails, Hezbollah wins and no matter what Israel does, the armed Islamists will come out of this stronger than ever.

What lessons hold for Egypt? If we can sit back and imagine a future for Egypt in which it has its own Cedar Revolution (and what would it be called? Suggestions are welcomed) and a new, but fragile democratic party attempts to maintain its influence over the many competiting bodies of opinion and interests in the country In such a situation, it's not unlikely that armed Islamist groups would take the opportunity to attack Israel, perhaps through Gaza. The groups might even feel compelled to act against Israel because of the threat to them that democratic legitimacy would bring to the government, which is a much more powerful weapon over the long term than any the Mubarak government currently wields. Israel would then behold the same question of response. If it chose military action, I would not like the consequences for Egyptian democracy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Free Mohamed El Sharkawy and Karim El Shaer

Two Kifaya activists have been imprisoned for another 15 days by Egyptian officials using administrative detention authority. This is another clear case of Egyptian officials silencing non-violent activists for non-violent political behavior. It's another example of them attempting to muzzle civil society and prevent the growth of any social organization of movement that it can't control. By crushing the vital civil society in Egypt, inevitably this will lead to a bipolar struggle for power between the Mubarak government and the growing Islamist movement. This, I am convinced is exactly what the Mubarak government wants: to force the outside world and -- more importantly Egyptians themselves -- to have to chose between these two options.

Here's the message signed by eight NGOs:

On the 5th of July 2006, the imprisonment of Mohamed Sharkawy and Karim El Shaer, Kefaya activists was extended again for another 15 days, because of their participation in the solidarity movement with Egyptian judges and despite the release of the remainder of Kefaya activists who were arrested during the same events.

Sharkawy was arrested on the 24th of April and was released on the 23rd of May to be arrested again two days later upon his participation in a protest rally in front of the press syndicate. This time, and during his arrest Sharkawy was subject to brutal beatings. He was then taken to Kasr El Nil police station and there he was tortured to the extent that his head and face were disfigured, as well as his sexual abuse in a shameful event that adds to the list of shame and brutality of Ministry of Interior and state security officers who carried out this torture or who have supervised it. Despite the obvious effects of torture on the face and body of Sharakwy when he was summoned to the state security prosecution (on the evening of the 25th of May), yet the prosecution was reluctant to refer him to forensic medical examination. Furthermore the prosecution did not refer Sharkawy to medical care except one week after he was transferred to prison!

Also, the prosecution did not until now undertake any measures to investigate the attack on Sharkawy, despite its documentation and the availability of eyewitnesses.

Since then state security prosecution continued to extend Sharkawy and Shaer’s imprisonment, in the absence of any reason other than to subject them both to psychological intimidation hoping that Sharkawy would be forced into giving up on his complaint of torture, or isolate him from anybody who could help him seek justice or keep him in prison until the signs of torture have disappeared.

All those events reveal the complicity of the state security prosecution and proves that it is part of the state security apparatus itself and not an independent investigation body. State security prosecution is known for using extended periods of detention as a punishment for dissidents, with no basis in the law.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Fears Rise Over New Press Law

Egypt's parliament has passed revisions to the controversial 1996 Press Law. The original bill put into law some of the most oppressive practices frequently used to harrass and silence the independent press. Journalists were sent to jail, brought up on spurious libel charges and limited in their ability to launch new papers.

The new revision of the bill hasn't improved things. One provision was moved that would could jail reporters and editors for reporting on the finances of public officials (investigation corruption is one of the key targets for opposition press and one of the things that is most likely to get them into trouble). However, other elements of the bill threaten reporters with jail for criticism of government officials.

Here's an excerpt from a news story about the legislation from the Arab Reform Bulletin:

"The Egyptian parliament’s controversial amendments to the 1996 press and publications law, passed on July 10, do not abolish prison sentences for journalists, despite protests by human rights activists and journalists. Editors-in-chief of some 25 Egyptian independent and party newspapers suspended the publication for one day on July 9 to protest the government-drafted bill and hundred of journalists protested outside the People’s Assembly."

The article further notes legislative changes coming out of the recent dispute with Egyptian judges:

"The People’s Assembly passed a new law of the judiciary on June 26, following a lengthy controversy between the Judges Club and the government. The new law includes two of the Judges Club’s demands: granting the judiciary budgetary independence from the Ministry of Justice and separating the office of the Public Prosecutor from the Ministry. The Public Prosecutor, however, will remain a presidential appointee. But the draft law ignores the judges’ demands that members of the Supreme Judicial Council be elected rather than appointed by the state. On July 2, several judicial officials considered close to the government were appointed to senior positions, including Maher Abdel Wahed (former Public Prosecutor) as head of the Supreme Constitutional Court and Moqbel Shaker as head of the Court of Cassation and Supreme Judicial Council."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Israel / Lebanon: End immediately attacks against civilians

Although this blog is focused on events in Egypt, the current crisis in Gaza, Lebanon and Israel is too important to ignore. The following is a statement from Amnesty released July 13.

The Israeli and Lebanese governments, and Hizbullah, must take immediate steps to end the ongoing attacks against civilians and civilian objects. Such attacks are a blatant breach of international humanitarian law and amount to war crimes.

It is vital at this time of rapidly rising tension that all parties observe the requirements of international humanitarian law, and that other governments take all appropriate steps to insist that they do so.

"Israel must put an immediate end to attacks against civilians and against civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, which constitute collective punishment. Israel must also respect the principle of proportionality when targeting any military objectives or civilian objectives that may be used for military purposes," said Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East Programme.

“Hizbullah must stop launching attacks against Israeli civilians and it must treat humanely the two Israeli soldiers it captured on 12 July and grant them immediate access to the International Committee of the Red Cross,” said Malcolm Smart.

The organization also called on the Lebanese government to take concrete measures to ensure that Hizbullah complies with these obligations under international law.


Some 40 Lebanese civilians have reportedly been killed in Israeli air strikes and artillery shelling against villages in South Lebanon since yesterday’s cross-border attack by Hizbullah’s armed wing, in which two Israeli soldiers were captured and eight others killed.
Among the Lebanese victims were a family of ten, including eight children, who were killed in Dweir village, near Nabatiyeh, and a family of seven, including a seven-month-

old baby, who were killed in Baflay village near Tyre. More than 60 other civilians were injured in these or other attacks.

Israeli forces have also launched deliberate attacks against civilian objects throughout Lebanon, including Beirut international airport, 10 bridges and an electricity power station, as well as against Hizbullah targets, notably the offices of its al-Manar television station in Beirut and its relay station in Baalbek.

At the same time, Hizbullah has been launching Katyusha rockets into Northern Israel. An Israeli woman was killed and dozens of other civilians were injured when a Katyusha rocket hit a house in the town of Nahariya earlier today.

The Fourth Geneva Convention, prohibits "collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism …" (Article 33). According to Article 147 of the Convention, "extensive destruction ... not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly," hostage-taking and "torture or inhuman treatment" are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and constitute war crimes. All state parties to the Convention are required to search for and ensure the prosecution of perpetrators of grave breaches of the said Convention.

Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions codifies the principle of distinction, a customary rule of international humanitarian law: "In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operation only against military objectives." (Article 48). International Humanitarian Law strictly prohibits attacks against civilians and civilian objects. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) includes as war crimes: “Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities”, and “Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects" (Article 8 2 (b) (i) and (ii)).

Egypt's "Brokeback Mountain"

The most controversial and popular movie in Egypt right now is The Yacoubian Building,
a film based on a best-selling book. The film is notable for its depiction of gay life in Egypt and for its portrayal of how oppressive government practices fuels civil violence.

Here's a excerpt to a story about the film in the Middle East Times:

However, despite the popularity of the film, the blatant depiction of homosexuality in it has created a divide among Egyptians and members of parliament.

One-hundred-and-twelve Egyptian deputies have decided to bring the issue to a head, creating a committee to review the movie and decide what should be cut; Scenes portraying homosexuality top the list.

"Mustafa Bakri [MP] saw it and he was enraged and came to the people's assembly saying one-third of the movie is about perversion," says Hamdi Hassan, head of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in parliament.

"This depiction of perversion is unjustified. These scenes are rejected by religion and the values of the Egyptian society, even if the society suffers from these problems," he adds.

It's not just the Muslim Brothers who are concerned about the film. In fact the MB has refused to condemn the movie, citing the need for freedom of expression.
"We are suffering from repression in a closed society, and calling for omission or banning would be a road to confusion," Hassan said.

The article suggests that one reason why the MB won't condemn the movie is its portrayal of government ruthlessness. One character is dragged off to prison and sodomized; the incident leads him to join a militant group.

The film remains uncensored, but many expect that to change. For now, it's popularity stands as an example of the stubborn strength of Egyptian society, the diversity of voices within it and some hope for the maturity of its ability to resist government pressures on issues such as freedom of expression.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Poor Treatment of Ayman Nour

Family members of Ayman Nour have released a statement urging public pressure to encourage President Mubarak to release Nour from prison. His condition continues to grow worse. Nour, who suffers from a heart condition, diabetes and other ailments, recently had to pull one toenail out himself while in his cell to prevent further infection and even amputation of the toe. Proper medical care had been denied him, according to the family.

He also suffers injuries from torture, according to the family. He is prevented from writing and receiving correspondence while in jail and is under surveillance 24 hours a day.

The more promising news is that more than 110 members of parliament, including members of Mubarak's own party, signed a petition asking Mubarak to use his constitutional right to give Nour a supervised release.

If you want to contact President Mubarak to add your voice, here's how to do it:

His Excellency Muhammad Hosni Mubarak
'Abedine Palace
Tel: + 20 2 910 288 / 243 1915
Fax: + 20 2 390 1998
E-mail: (emails sometimes bounce back from this address)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Is Egypt targeting bloggers?

Now that detained blogger Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam has been freed, Egyptian authorities are using his release to claim that there's freedom of expression in the country. The World, a National Public Radio news program, took a look at the issue in its Monday's broadcast. Here's the report.

I applaud the news attention to this issue. I think the report exposes the fallacy of the Egyptian government claims that there is no need for concern because there is a plethera of viewpoints being expressed in Egypt. I was touched by Alaa's recollection of a security official looking at his blog with him prior to his release. A writer always appreciates knowing he has an audience!

But there is reason for concern. The variety of opinions in Egypt is historical. Egypt is a society with a long and strong history of civil society and a vigorous civil discussion. That is part of the background to this issue. Systemmatically, the Egyptian government has tried to pare away that history, using first State of Emergency powers and then adding to that a series of expanded powers passed by the parliament. I date the latest effort to 1996 with the first of a series of press laws that put journalists and human rights defenders at risk. That was followed by crackdown on professional societies coming under the control of Muslim Brothers. That was followed by a 1999 NGO law that held the threat of government action against any NGO at any time.

The point is even is all the jailed bloggers have been freed, there's little reason to feel confident. The laws and the precedents are there for the government to act to curtail anyone's freedom of speech at any time. And the Egyptian government has shown time and time again that if it has the power to do something, it will do it.

No, the only basis on which to judge whether Egypt has freedom of expression is the statutory ability of the government to silence critics. When the Mubarak regime ends the State of Emergency and abolish articles of the penal code and other legislation that, in violation of international standards, allows it to detain people for their free speech, when all that power is taken away, then that claim can be made. The courage and strength and speech of political opponents in Egypt is impressive; the fact that they don't have the legal right to such speech is not.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Abusing Emergency Powers in Egypt

Amnesty International today called on the Egyptian government to ensure that a new law on terrorism currently being drafted does not entrench powers that have facilitated torture, unfair trials and other grave human rights violations under Egypt’s long running state of emergency.

The organization sent a memorandum to President Hosni Mubarak highlighting its concerns about secret detentions and enforced "disappearances", torture and ill-treatment of detainees, unfair trials before special and military courts, the death penalty, and the impunity accorded to state officials responsible for perpetrating torture and other human rights violations. The organization said that these violations have been committed under powers conferred on state officials under the state of emergency, which has been continuously in force since 1981. It was most recently renewed in April 2006 for a period of two years or until the new anti-terror law is in place.

The memorandum also describes the cases of people forcibly returned to and detained in Egypt in the context of the so-called war on terror, under the US government’s unlawful renditions policy, on the basis of "diplomatic assurances" or by other Arab governments. Many of these suspects have effectively "disappeared" since their return to Egypt; the authorities have not acknowledged holding them or disclosed their identities, nor divulged the legal reasons for their detentions or where they are being held.

In its letter to President Mubarak, Amnesty International said it recognized the threat posed to Egypt by terrorism and utterly condemned the recent bomb attacks carried out at Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab which targeted civilians, causing many deaths and injuries. In combating terrorism and in carrying out their responsibilities to maintain public safety and punish crime, however, the Egyptian authorities must abide by their obligations under international human rights law, including the absolute prohibition on torture. The new law against terrorism should be formulated taking these obligations into account. It should not entrench the abusive powers of the government’s state of emergency and lead to a perpetuation of the gross abuses which have occurred under it. Other laws -- such as those restricting press freedom and the activities of non-governmental organizations -- should also be amended and brought into conformity with international human rights law.

Amnesty International made this call ahead of an international conference on "Terrorism: the Legal Challenges", which will be held on 8-9 July in Cairo under the auspices of the Centre of Parliamentary Studies of the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s Parliament.