US Gov’t, Media Boost Human Rights Criticism of Egypt as Rift with Israel Widens
By Jon Pattee
Senior English Editor
Albawaba.com - Amman
Egypt's sentencing of a prominent human rights activist to a seven-year jail term has reaped widespread condemnation in the US media, as well as a sharp upturn in US government criticism at a time when Egypt is distancing itself from Israel and assuming a lead role in the Arab World's pro-Palestinian movement.
Egypt is no stranger to the bad press that accompanies the murder and suppression of intellectuals. From the 1992 assassination of poet Faraq Fouda by Muslim extremists, to the 1989 knifing of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz by the same forces, very few of the country's voices of dissent have escaped the wrath of militant Islamists, on the one hand, and the ruling National Democratic Party on the other.
Last week's jailing of sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim once again threw Egypt into the spotlight, this time for the Supreme Security Court's decision to sentence the outspoken pro-democracy activist to seven years in prison. A flurry of articles and editorials in the Western press, ranging from the Washington Post to Newsweek, quickly followed.
Perhaps the most sobering reaction to Ibrahim's sentence, which he received for embezzlement, "spreading tendentious rumors" about election fraud, and illegally accepting money from the European Union, was a blast of criticism from the US, which provides Egypt with billions in aid each year.
"We've been expressing all along our concerns about the process that resulted in this sentence," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was quoted as saying.
Human rights groups said they harbored doubts over the fairness of the trial. The New York-based Human Rights Watch pointed to the speed with which the verdict was reached.
Meanwhile, a Washington Post editorial urged the US administration to reconsider $2 billion in aid to Egypt in light of its human rights record.
Domestic critics have also had their say, especially human rights groups. The trial of Ibrahim, who was sentenced along with 27 colleagues from his think tank, constituted "a terrible embarrassment for Egypt," according to Dan Tschigi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, cited by Newsweek.
UP AGAINST THE WALL
Ibrahim's lawyers tried unsuccessfully to undermine the entire legal edifice upon which the prosecution's case was built, particularly the archaic Article 48 of the penal code, which was created in 1910.
The article makes it easier to prove charges of conspiracy by doing away with stringent requirements for material evidence of criminal intent. The situation-specific military decree issued on October 20, 1992 after the Cairo earthquake was also a crucial element in defense arguments. That decree forbids any NGO from taking any sort of funding without written permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs.
"I want to emphasize to the court the fragility, feebleness and shallowness of the charges leveled against my client, and the lack of material evidence," concluded lead lawyer Ibrahim Saleh in his April 14 argument.
CAUSE FOR ALARM
International human rights groups have offered scathing criticisms of the Egyptian government for the Ibrahim trial, as well as a string of abuses they claim goes back for decades.
Among the critics is Human Rights Watch, whose World Report 2001 concludes that: "The government of President Husni Mubarak intensified its efforts to exercise control over civil society institutions, harassing and restricting the activities of political parties, human rights and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), professional associations and the press…State security forces continued to commit grave human rights violations with impunity, including the detention without charge or trial of political detainees and torture, and political opponents continued to be sentenced after unfair trials.”
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2000 recounts an approach by the US government that appears to contrast sharply with the most recent criticism.
"During President Mubarak's June 26 - July 1 visit to Washington, DC, there was no public criticism from senior administration officials for his government's poor human rights record," according to the 1999 report.
"On June 29, Martin Indyk, assistant secretary for near eastern affairs, termed Egypt the ‘strategic partner"’ of the US in the Middle East. Citing the Israeli-Arab peace negotiations and policy on Iraq, he added: 'We share a common interest and a common vision for the region. We want to promote -- together -- more peace, more prosperity and more stability.'"
A SUDDEN SHIFT
However, the intervening months have seen Egypt take a more active role in advocating for the Palestinians, along with increasingly sharp US criticism.
Mubarak, who earlier worked on a joint peace initiative with Jordan, recently toured the Gulf states to hammer out a united Arab stand on the issue, according to Reuters.
According to a May report by the Middle East Newsline (MENL), some observers have concluded that Mubarak is perhaps the only Arab leader who can stop an Arab-Israeli war.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s former foreign minister Amr Moussa has moved to the head of the Arab League, transforming what the BBC has called a “toothless beast” into a more effective voice for Arab unity.
"Political contacts are being made under the barrel of an Israeli gun, then we talk about peace, this is totally unacceptable," Moussa told reporters after a one-day meeting in Cairo where Arab leaders decided to recommend the suspension of all ties with Israel.
The ministers also called for the freezing of Israeli settlement building and expansion, an international boycott of goods produced in settlements, as well as an emergency meeting of the UN General Assembly or Security Council to provide protection for Palestinian civilians.
MENL’s report notes that for the first time in 20 years, Congress has publicly challenged the administration over US aid to Egypt.
Senator Mitch McConnell, chairman of the Senate's appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, said he and his colleagues would examine the prospect of reducing US aid to Egypt in view of its policies toward Israel, the report said.
It remains to be seen whether the US government and media’s criticism of Egypt, for the Ibrahim case and many others, will endure beyond a resolution of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)