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Questions for Mubarak
By Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page A25
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.
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.
Activists And Journalists Rallied In Cairo Feb. 2 To D)
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
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
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.
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
for Scholars, writing his prison memoirs.
© 2005 The Washington Post