National Review
June 20, 2005
 
Freedom's Fighters
 
By Nina Shea
 
Egyptian businessman and human-rights activist Ramy Lakah should be  very much on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's mind as she  visits Cairo today. The case of this 41-year-old Coptic Christian  dramatizes the destructiveness of Hosni Mubarak's human-rights  policies upon a nation that was once the cultural leader in the region and raises some of the steep challenges facing  President Bush's democratization push for the country. But his  experience also offers some hope and points a way forward.
 
Lakah, a business entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social-reformer  politician, is a citizen any country would be proud to call its own  and one that Egypt desperately needs if it is to develop into a  successful democratic state. But, according to Lakah, because of his  political success at the expense of the ruling National Democratic  party and his criticism of the Mubarak regime's human-rights record,  he has been the target of harassment and a vicious government-smear  campaign that has shattered his endeavors inside Egypt and forced  him and his family to flee the country. 
 
In 1998, building on a fortune inherited from his father's bio - engineering business, he formed the Lakah Group, a holding company  that employed 12,000 people. Lakah says that international rating  agencies gave it the highest bond rating achieved by any Egyptian  company until that time. An indomitable mover and shaker, his  ambitions did not rest there. He wanted to invest in the people of his native land, as well. Hence, he started micro-enterprises for  girls and sponsored educational opportunities in the lower middle  class neighborhood of Dahar, in central Cairo.
 
Lakah's good works proved so popular that Dahar, which like the  country as a whole is about 90-percent Muslim, elected him to  parliament in 1999 despite his open identification as a Catholic (he  was a principal host of Pope John Paul II during the papal visit to  Egypt in 2000). He was popular among his peers in the legislature as  well, and they made him the vice chair of the parliament's powerful  foreign-affairs committee.
 
The Problem of Success This was the start of Lakah's troubles. Not  only did he defeat the ruling NDP in a seat it had traditionally  held in the People's Assembly, he did so by beating a close relative  of the prime minister. Around the same time, he joined the board of  directors of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and signed  his name to a courageous report that found that "torture is practiced in police stations in governorates all over Egypt, from  Aswan in the south to Alexandria in the north."
 
The Banc du Caire, whose chairman was appointed in 2000 by the prime  minister, and other government banks soon began bouncing millions of  dollars in checks due to the Lakah Group and employing other forms  of financial harassment against the company, according to Lakah. The  pressure intensified when he joined with human-rights dissident  Ayman Nour to announce their intention to form a new liberal  political party, the Al Ghad party.
 
Next, Lakah, who also holds a French passport, was removed from his  elected seat through the selective enforcement of a new measure  barring parliamentarians with dual citizenship. The rule was not  been applied to other deputies with dual citizenship; one of his  colleagues in the assembly, a fellow human-rights advocate who is  Muslim, resigned in protest.
 
The Lakah Group was dealt a major setback after government banks and institutions failed to honor their commitments to it. Lakah himself  was subsequently accused of financial wrongdoing, charges that he  denies and has tried to counter through international audits.
 
Acting on a tip that he was about to be arrested, Lakah finally left  Egypt in July 2001. Now 41, he lives with his wife and two young  daughters in Paris where he is CEO of Star Airlines, a Middle East  commercial airlines with offices on the Champs Elysees. 
 
Even in exile, he continues to be hounded by the Mubarak government,  which Lakah says falsely reported to Interpol that he is wanted on criminal charges though he knows of none that have been lodged  against him. In 2003, based on an Interpol warrant, he was subject  to a 24-hour detention, followed by deportation, when he landed at  Chicago's O'Hare airport while on a business trip. This is doubly  tragic because Lakah is staunchly pro-American and was one of the  few Egyptians to respond to the United States government's call for help by training Iraqis in radiology and other areas of  bioengineering.
 
Lakah is eager to clear his name but holds little hope for a fair  trial. The Egyptian judiciary is not known for its independence. His  friends and pro-democracy colleagues, Nour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim  have both served jail time on trumped up charges in Egypt and were  released only because of international pressure.
 
Egyptians have not had the freedom to change their government.  Mubarak has been president for nearly a quarter of a century by  standing for office unopposed in four national referendums. The  president appoints the country's 26 governors and may dismiss them  at his discretion. The National Democratic party, which has governed since 1978, has used its entrenched position to dominate  national politics and has maintained an overriding majority in the  People's Assembly and the upper chamber, the Shura Council. Earlier  this year, in response to domestic pressure and President Bush's  explicit calls for democratic elections in Egypt, President Mubarak  called for an amendment to the constitution to allow opposition  candidates to run. However, candidates must be registered with officially recognized political parties and be approved by the  People's Assembly--thus ensuring Mubarak another six-year term.
 
Mubarak's policies have created a situation in which pro-Western  democrats like Ramy Lakah are silenced or driven abroad, leaving the  Muslim Brotherhood as the only organized opposition within Egypt. If  an open election were held this year, few doubt that the Muslim  Brotherhood would win. An Islamist group, the Brotherhood has won  hearts and minds through charitable work and exploited religion to thrive despite ruthless repression against it. It  purportedly renounced violence in the 1970s, but its motto continues  to be: "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Koran is  our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest  hope." Though some of its members disclaim the group's agenda and  promise moderation, its institutional goal is to rule through a form  of sharia (Islamic law) that would suppress women, give second-class  dhimmi status to Coptic Christians and other minorities, and impose restrictions on Muslims' rights to freedom of speech, association,  and religion.
 
Egypt Is Not a Lost Cause 
 
Nevertheless, the Lakah case does provide some bright rays of hope:
 
* Egyptian society is still not rigidly polarized along sectarian  lines. It is encouraging that Muslim Egyptians inside and outside  parliament gave Lakah, a prominent member of a non-Muslim minority  group, solidarity and support.
 
* Public assistance and humanitarian development projects at the  neighborhood level have more to do with the deliverer's popularity  than his religious agenda. As Lakah demonstrated, non-Islamist  politicians are electable if they deliver the goods for their  districts. With the freedom, resources and time to organize politically, they could conceivably be competitive against the more  developed Muslim Brotherhood.
 
* Brave leaders who are committed to individual civil and political  freedoms exist within Egyptian society. Ramy Lakah can be added to  the list of heroic Egyptian dissidents who include Saad Eddin  Ibrahim and Ayman Nour--they are the Andrei Sakharovs, Vaclav  Havels, and Natan Sharanskys of their day.
 
Egypt can begin to "show the way toward democracy in the Middle  East," as President Bush urged in the State of the Union, by  clearing Ramy Lakah's name--and by giving him and other pro-freedom  candidates, who as Dr. Ibrahim has spelled out are willing "to abide  by certain rules of the game," the political space to participate  fully in the democratic process. 
 
 
--Nina Shea is the director of Freedom House's Center for Religious 
Freedom.
 
 
Thanks for your efforts to make Egypt more democratic. 
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