By William Fisher
The news went largely unreported, so you may have missed it, but last week the editor of a newspaper in Cairo was sentenced to six months in prison for spreading “false information… damaging the public interest and national stability” by reporting that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in a coma. The judge in the case said the report, by Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Egypt’s Al-Dustour, caused panic among foreign investors and threatened Egypt’s economy.
This case is unremarkable given the recent history of Egypt’s contempt for press freedom – in fact, for all the freedoms we Americans still regard as our inalienable rights. It is arguably more remarkable in that, if the test of “spreading false information” were applied to American journalists, building more jails would be a higher priority than building new homes for Katrina victims.
That said, however, the news of Mr. Eissa’s conviction gives us yet another example of the embarrassing double standards built into US foreign policy. Our State Department produces an annual report on human rights abuses around the world, but neglects to assess our own performance. So Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, renditions and waterboarding, are absent. Instead, the Bush Administration continues to bury us in empty bromides about democracy promotion.
But the democracy-promotion mantra didn’t start with George W. Bush. It started as long ago as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It was significantly ratcheted up during the Cold War administration of President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), when the US policy of Soviet containment made friends of the enemies of our enemy.
In 1982, Reagan told the British Parliament of a "democratic revolution" gathering force around the globe. Reagan announced that the US would “foster the infrastructure of democracy" — a free press, independent
unions, truly representative political parties, and the many other institutions essential to a functioning democracy.
Bush 41, considered a foreign policy “realist,” continued the theme, though somewhat less stridently. And the Clinton Administration embraced much the same themes during the 1990s, to make its case for our embrace of globalization.
But post-9/11, the Bush Administration raised the promotion of democracy and freedom – particularly in the Middle East -- to a historically higher rhetorical priority. In his second inaugural address, Bush said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Bush said the "resentment and tyranny" in which "whole regions of the world" were now immersed had come to breed new forms of violence that "raise a mortal threat" because Islamic fundamentalism endangered American security. So, he said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Bush administration officials say they have used diplomatic pressure, foreign aid and the architecture established by Reagan to help nurture democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. Bush also said the democratic transformation of the Middle East would begin with regime change in Iraq.
But Bush outdid Reagan: He went for a twofer: The US would continue to talk up freedom and democracy while enlisting other nations to help fight the ‘global war on terror.’ It is now clear that in Dubya’s world, counter-terrorism trumps democracy promotion, rhetoric notwithstanding. And it is precisely that juxtaposition of goals that now finds us in bed with most of the world’s most repressive regimes – many of the same countries we wooed during the Cold War.
Egypt was one of them. In the 1950s, both the Soviet Union and the Western powers offered aid to Egypt to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. But Egypt chose to buy weapons from the communist government of Czechoslovakia, and the West canceled its offer. Later, it would become a more dependable Cold War partner for the US.
And – from a war on terror standpoint – the Bush Administration has considered it a dependable partner ever since. Today, Egypt receives $2 billion a year, including $1.3 billion in military assistance from the U.S. annually – second only to the sum awarded to Israel. The Bush Administration considers Egypt as key ally against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, a once-violent opposition group that has since renounced terror and has numerous representatives in the Egyptian parliament – serving as independents, because the government won’t recognize the Brotherhood as a legitimate political party.
The US also considers Egypt – the first Arab nation to recognize Israel and establish full diplomatic relations – as critical to its peace-seeking agenda for a Palestinian state, though to date there is little evidence that it has much real influence on the process. Currently, Egypt is said to be in secret talks to reach some kind of accommodation with the leadership of Hamas. And, as David Ignatius pointed out in Sunday’s Washington Post, there has been no outcry of opposition from the US or the Israelis.
The bottom line in this complex relationship is that US aid to Egypt has continued without major interruption despite what many see as toothless criticisms by the Bush Administration of the iron-fisted 30-year rule of Egypt’s aging autocrat, Hosni Mubarak.
That criticism has included Administration condemnation of the arrest and imprisonment of Mubarak’s main opponent in the presidential elections in 2005, Ayman Nour, who Bush said was “unjustly imprisoned.” Earlier, Bush complained about the conviction of another prominent opposition leader, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who has since fled Egypt. Since 1980, Egypt has been under a so-called Emergency Law, which gives its police and security services virtually carte blanche in arrests and detention of its citizens. The State Department’s human rights report annually confirms that instances of torture, abuse and death in detention are widespread, and Egypt is known to have been the recipient of “extraordinary renditions” by the CIA.
Earlier this year, the US Congress weighed in to express its displeasure with the Mubarak regime. It put a ‘hold” on $100 million of American military aid to Egypt, calling on the Mubarak government to protect the independence of the judiciary, stop police abuses and curtail arms smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.”
But in January, the Bush Administration waived the hold in a bid to encourage Egypt to help in calming the Israeli-Palestinian crises. In a visit to Egypt the same month, President Bush lavished praise on Mubarak: “I appreciate the example that your nation is setting…I appreciate very much the long and proud tradition that you’ve had for a vibrant civil society.”
But, according to one of the Arab world’s most widely respected non-governmental organizations, a vibrant civil society is the perfect definition of what Egypt is not. Nor is most of the rest of the Arab Middle East and North Africa. In a recent report to the United Nations Human Rights Council – of which Egypt is a member -- the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) charged that at least fourteen Middle East and North African governments are systematically violating the civil liberties of their citizens – and most of them are close US allies in the war on terror.
The report said that there have been “huge harassments of human rights organizations and defenders have been increasingly subject to abusive and suppressive actions by government actors in democratic rights and freedoms in the majority of Arab countries, particularly Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Tunisia.”
The group called upon the international community to “exert effective efforts to urge Arab governments to duly reconsider their legislation, policy and practices contravening their international obligations to protect freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom to form associations, including non-governmental organizations.”
It added that “Special attention should be awarded to providing protection to human rights defenders in the Arab World.”
As an example of typical area-wide human rights abuses, the CIHRS report cited the recent forced closure by Egyptian authorities of the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, an organization active in exposing instances of torture. The Egyptian government claimed that the organization “received foreign funding without having the consent of the Minister of Social Solidarity.”
The organization warned of “increasingly repressive conditions being imposed on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt, including a proposed amendment to the Law of Associations that it said would limit the right of association and expression.
Other Arab nations singled out for detailed criticism included Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia, The United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The report also accused four other Arab countries of human rights abuses -- Libya, Algeria, Sudan and Morocco.
The CIHRS report to the UN details numerous human rights violations throughout the Arab Middle East and North Africa. It accuses Syria of arresting “dozens tens of qualified professionals personnel belonging to human rights organizations and civil society revival committees.” It says the Bahraini government closed the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, put the president of one civil society on trial, and charged seven other activists with "participating in an illegal gathering and creating disturbance."
In Tunisia, the report charges, “The authorities have made it almost impossible for the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) and other civil society institutions to operate. Tunisian human rights defenders have not been allowed to travel abroad and undertook measures to freeze LTDH’s grants from the European Union.
According to the CIHRS report, “Many Gulf countries, as well as Libya, do not allow for the existence of human rights organizations or civil society activists. The long-running Algerian military influence has severely limited civil society organizations. Since the toppling of Sudan’s democratic government in 1989, Sudanese civil society has been deprived of many legal and political protections and rights. Furthermore, civil society institutions in conflict affected countries, such as Iraq, come under constant violent attack; the same applies to the situation in Palestine – whether due to the occupation or in-fighting between its two political parties.”
The US position on promoting democracy while turning a blind eye to blatant and widespread human rights abuses in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere has made America vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and has doubtless contributed to the precipitous fall in the world’s respect for the US.
Many foreign policy experts suggest that America needs a more targeted approach to defeating known terrorists. And more effective use of “soft power” to counter the jihadist narrative with a more appealing story, and a series of high priority initiatives to discourage further radicalization among people who feel marginalized and disempowered but have not yet joined the ranks of “the bad guys.”
This is not just an American problem. Millions of people from the Middle East and North Africa have now migrated to Europe. And, so far, few European countries have shown either the skills or the political will to develop policies to create a more welcoming environment for these “not like us” newcomers.
But it is a very special problem for the United States – the country the whole world once looked to as an exemplar of respect for civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law.
It is doubtful that America’s position in the world is likely to be restored by being found in bed with Hosni Mubarak or King Abdullah.
Also doubtful is that President Bush, in the waning months of his administration, is going to do anything except “stay the course.” Changing course will be a job for our next president. Lamentably, none of the contenders for that office are discussing this issue.
But we need to encourage them to do so.