By William Fisher
Egypt’s authoritarian government ramped up its crackdown on journalists and opposition politicians ahead of the November 28 parliamentary elections and rebuffed a U.S. call for international observers to monitor “free and fair” balloting.
At the same time, the U.S. and its principal Middle East ally appeared to be headed for a rhetorical brawl over Egypt’s alleged religious discrimination.
“Egypt is capable of monitoring the upcoming polls to prove to the entire world we are able to manage completely impartial elections,” Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told journalists.
He dismissed as interference, calls to allow foreign observers to monitor the country's parliamentary elections next week, an official said.
According to press reports, “It is as if the United States has turned into a caretaker of how Egyptian society should conduct its own politics.”
“The National Democratic Party (NDP) and legal opposition groups reject any such interference," said Sawfat al-Sharif, the secretary-general of the NDP.
Some 250 candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) party have been arrested and many detained. The MB, whose candidates must run as “independents” because the MB is not recognized as a political party, h controls about 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament. It claims that some political parties have done deals with the NDP to exclude Brotherhood candidates from the elections.
The program of Mubarak's ruling party includes such objectives as combating poverty and corruption, raising the standard of living, working towards social justice and strengthening national security. Critics charge that the 82-year-old president has announced similar goals each time there is an election, but claim that it is difficult to see any major changes taking place.
The NDP is expected to maintain majority control in the 518-seat People's Assembly for the new, five-year term. Mubarak is expected to run again for the presidency next year.
The U.S. has been seen by some observers as slow to speak out forcefully regarding the election. But last week State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters, "The United States remains committed to supporting free and impartial elections in Egypt," holding the Egyptian government to its own commitment to "fair and transparent elections."
Crowley called on Egypt to ensure peaceful political gatherings, unhindered voter education and participation campaigns, as well as balanced media coverage for all candidates.
But in Egypt, some election observers found it significant that these announcements came from relatively mid-level personnel rather than U.S. President Barack Obama.
Michele Dunne, a former State Department Middle East specialist and analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the elections pose major challenges.
"The signs are not very positive for having free elections. There have been a lot of steps that the Egyptian government has taken recently to cut down the size of opposition, to diminish the number of opposition candidates who can run, to encumber their freedom to campaign, to control media coverage of the elections and prevent the opposition from using technological means like text messages and so forth to mobilize for the elections," she said.
Meanwhile, government security apparatus continued its political persecution of journalists and Egypt and the U.S. appeared headed for a confrontation regarding religious discrimination.
An Egyptian criminal court began the trial of an opposition journalist accused of libeling Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit. The minister had filed a complaint alleging that he was insulted in an article in the independent daily Shorouk last May.
In other journalism-related developments:
An Egyptian citizen, Usama Mishref, was detained in Saudi Arabia. Mishref is the coordinator of the Saudi branch of an Egyptian group, the National Assembly for Change, which supports a presidential run for Mohamed El Baradei, retired chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mishref was on his way from Riyadh to Mecca to launch the campaign "You Are The Only Way Out" in support of democratic reform in Egypt. He had posted a video on YouTube urging Egyptians not to be afraid of the security police and to support demands for change and democratic reform in Egypt.
Reporters Without Borders condemned blogger Ahmed Hassan Basiouny’s trial by court martial, and called for the immediate withdrawal of the charges against him. He is the second blogger to face a court martial in Egypt.
Basiouny is being prosecuted for creating a Facebook page in 2009 that offered advice and information to young people thinking of enlisting in the Egyptian army. He is charged with disseminating defense secrets online and “disclosing information about the Egyptian armed forces.”
And Amnesty International issued a new report, 'Shouting slogans into the wind': Human rights concerns ahead of the parliamentary elections’. It said, “The rise in the number of voices calling for reform has been met with increasing repression by the authorities, using the very emergency powers that many Egyptians have been urging them to abolish. Many such critics, in fact, have faced arrest, detention, prosecution on trumped-up criminal charges and unfair trials.”
In developments relating to alleged religious discrimination in Egypt, the State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in the world and outlined several problematic areas in Egypt. The report described ways in which religious minorities like Coptic Christians, Shia, and Baha'i face unfair institutional and legal difficulties in addition to individual discrimination.
"The status of respect for religious freedom by the government remained poor, unchanged from the previous year," the 2010 report said.
Meanwhile, 10 houses owned by Copts in the village of Al-Nawahid in Qena province, some 465 kilometers south of Cairo, were burned down when rumors circulated that a Coptic resident was having an affair with a Muslim woman.
Last year in Qena, a Coptic man was accused of kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old Muslim girl. The alleged assault led to widespread protests by the Muslim community and increased tensions between the two religious groups, which culminated in the murder of six Copts and one Muslim security guard at a church on Jan. 6.
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million. Copts and Muslims generally live in peace, though tension and violence occasionally flare.
Human rights groups say attacks on Copts are on the rise, underscoring the government's failure to address chronic sectarian strains in a society where religious radicalism is gaining ground.
On Saturday, the government dismissed the complaints from the United States. It said Washington has no right to hand down judgments.
"The report is rejected on principle because it has been issued by a party which has no right to make such an evaluation," the foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement in reaction to the State Department’s report. The government insists Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims.