By William Fisher
President George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” has produced the unintended consequence of bringing the United States ever-closer to some of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Egypt provides a classic example.
Last week, over the objections of the country’s human rights advocates, Egypt extended the 20-year-old “emergency” law that gives the government power to arrest and detain people without charges, and refused to moderate its campaign to further compromise the independence of an already weak judiciary.
These two developments provide insight into how the Global War on Terror is consistently trumping moves toward good governance and civil society that could be powerful weapons against the very terrorists Egypt seeks to defeat.
Following what many believe to be last year’s deeply flawed presidential election, the country’s judges’ demanded that they be allowed to investigate reports of widespread irregularities, violence towards voters and judges supervising the polls, and vote rigging. .
The government’s response was to strip six of the magistrates of their immunity from police questioning and thus open the door to criminal charges of defamation and insult.
Human rights organizations wrote Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif that they were “concerned for a number of human rights violations that took place with a renewed strength in the last months in Egypt, and, in particular, for the repeated limitations to freedom of expression and opinion, whose victims were different groups of the Egyptian civil society”.
The fate of the judges remains in limbo.
Egypt first adopted its Emergency Law in 1981 in response to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and at its height was used to detain more than 30,000
prisoners indefinitely without charge.
Mr. Mubarak has had the law renewed every three years since — and today human rights groups estimate that there are approximately 15,000 uncharged prisoners in Egypt's jails.
The law expressly allows the authorities to hold individuals for up to six
months without being charged or tried. But in practice, legal experts said, the
government goes through the motions of technically releasing prisoners after six
months, and then re-arresting them, without ever having actually let them go.
In effect, the law is the fire blanket the government has thrown over all dissent, including press freedom.
During his presidential campaign – the first in the country’s history that allowed multiple candidates -- President Mubarak vowed repeatedly to repeal the state of emergency in favor of a new anti-terrorism law. He received the enthusiastic support of civil society and human rights groups, journalists, lawyers, and other professional organizations, and even members of the political opposition.
A typical civil society response came from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners. They wrote the Prime Minister that they “consider the termination of the state of emergency by the Egyptian authorities as a step forward towards the respect of Human Rights in Egypt and the strengthening of democratic values in the country. The extension of the state of emergency in Egypt had has been the source of several violations of human rights, and was used by the authorities to repress political opponents and to severely limit the freedom of expression and association.”
The organizations also encouraged the government to consider the demands of the Egyptian Press Syndicate and to examine journalists’ demands for the reform of laws governing the press. In particular, the groups expressed concern about the clauses on defamation, “so as to decriminalize the press related offences in order to guarantee freedom of expression and democracy in the country”.
Two journalists were recently sentenced to a year of imprisonment and fines for “defamation”, and hundreds of similar cases are reportedly now before the courts.
But the organizations cautioned the Egyptian authorities “to ensure the conformity of the new legislation to their international obligations” with guarantees of the right to life, freedom of expression, religion and belief, prohibition of torture and any form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to a fair and impartial trial, guarantees on the presumption of innocence, arrest only in case of reasonable suspicion, as well as the obligation to communicate to the detainee the charges against him/her and the guarantee of access to a lawyer, absolute prohibition of torture in all circumstances and a legal definition of terrorism that does not leave ground for misinterpretation or abuse..”
The Egyptian president’s response was to push a two-year extension of the emergency law through Parliament. The two-year extension was widely supported by the majority of the members of parliament who belong to Mubarak's governing National Democratic Party, which voted 237 to 91 in favor.
The largest opposition block in Parliament includes 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were elected as independents last year. They stood in the parliamentary chamber today wearing black sashes over their shoulders that called for an end to the emergency law. The once militant Brotherhood, while still officially banned, has become Egypt’s leading voice of political Islam.
We will never use the emergency law against the Egyptian people," Mr. Nazif
said to the crowded parliamentary chamber. "We will use it only to protect the
citizens and face the terror cells that did not quell until now."
The authorities promptly arrested several dozen young men from political
opposition groups who had been displaying signs reading, "No for emergency
law," and "Together against extension of the emergency law."
While the U.S. State Department expressed disappointment that the presidential and subsequent parliamentary elections were not as free and fair as hoped for, President Bush has praised Egypt for its staunch support for the Global War on Terror.
Today, Egypt remains second only to Israel as a beneficiary of U.S. military and economic assistance.
President Bush has also praised other countries that have long histories as human rights violators but that support his anti-terror campaign. These include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Libya, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Yemen, and others.
These countries consistently receive negative assessments in the U.S. State Department’s annual review of human rights practices around the world.
In a second kind of alliance that appears to be contrary to President Bush’s goal of spreading democracy around the world, the Administration is now reaching out to leaders who rule oil-rich countries that are accused of authoritarian rule and human rights violations. This search for energy supplies and allies against Iran includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Equatorial Guinea.
So opaque is the Bush Administration that it’s difficult to know if it understands how its policies thus contradict one another. And how seriously these contradictions strain American credibility internationally. But these conflicting themes will not be lost on the rest of the world, most of whose countries will lose no time pointing them out.