By William Fisher
One of the rituals associated with being a staffer for the President of the United States or a Cabinet officer is briefing your boss to be prepared to answer any question the press is likely to be asking.
Lots of smart people participate in these briefings. And if some upstart reporter asks a question no one anticipated, staffers have egg on their faces, big-time.
That’s what occurred to me as I listened to our top government officials, from the President on down, delivering their shaky, unconvincing and intentionally neutral responses to the most powerful calls for political change in Egypt’s history.
It was as if the notion of change had been invented yesterday and came as a complete surprise to the White House.
This in itself is pretty weird in a government that expends endless energy developing contingency plans for every eventuality imaginable to thinking people.
But evidently there was no “Plan B” for the Democracy Contingency. Judging by the Administration’s anemic responses, the possibility that demands for freedom of speech and assembly, a free press, and economic opportunity would ever develop to a point where they would have to be seriously addressed never occurred to our leaders.
I find this astonishing. It is not as if the dictatorial and cruel policies and practices of Hosni Mubarak’s security apparatus were new or unknown to official Washington. They have been a big part of the Egyptian political landscape for thirty years!
Occasionally, our government has even been obliged to respond publicly to some particularly egregious transgression of somebody’s human rights in the Land of the Pharaohs.
So it was in 2007, when Mubarak’s justice system sentenced a 22-year-old blogger to four years in prison. The blogger was a former college student, Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman.
Suleiman had been expelled from Al-Azhar University, Egypt's most powerful theological institution. His crime? Writing about the university's curriculum, Egypt's discrimination against minority religions, and religious extremism. He was charged with "spreading information disruptive of public order," with "incitement to hate Muslims" and "insulting the president."
The widely respected Reporters Without Borders called the sentence “a disgrace” and noted that it had come “almost three years ago to the day, [when] President Mubarak promised to abolish prison sentences for press offenses.”
That’s when I wrote the article below for Truthout. That article concluded:
“And where is George W. Bush on this issue? Just gullible, and allowing
himself to be snookered by the empty promises of one of the Middle East's
least-moderate autocrats? Or making it obvious to all that the Bush
administration values Egypt far more as an ally in its Global War on Terror than as a partner in its Global War for Democracy.”
Today, four years later, the initial reaction of the Obama Administration was like déjà vu all over again. Except that a lot more bloggers have been imprisoned since then.
This is what I wrote in 2007:
William Fisher | Let's Hear It for the Moderates
By William Fisher
Thursday 01 March 2007
The Bush administration is fond of labeling Middle East governments with
which it has friendly relations as "moderate Arab states." Egypt is perhaps the most prominent of these "moderates" - so moderate that it is, after Israel, the second-largest recipient of US development assistance and vast amounts of military accoutrements.
But can anyone find anything "moderate" about throwing a blogger in jail for four years?
The blogger is a former college student, Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, 22,
who was expelled from Al-Azhar University - Egypt's most powerful theological institution - last spring. His crimes? He spoke out about the university's curriculum, Egypt's discrimination against minority religions, and religious extremism.
He was charged with "spreading information disruptive of public order," with "incitement to hate Muslims" and "insulting the president." He has not had consistent access to lawyers or to his family.
The widely respected Reporters Without Borders correctly pointed out, "This sentence is a disgrace. Almost three years ago to the day, President Mubarak promised to abolish prison sentences for press offenses. Suleiman's conviction and sentence is a message of intimidation to the rest of the Egyptian blogosphere, which had emerged in recent years as an effective bulwark against the regime's authoritarian excesses."
Only a couple of years ago, President Mubarak convinced George W. Bush that Egypt would be a strong ally in Bush's messianic mission of spreading democracy throughout the world. To people who know anything at all about world politics, Bush's judgment was about as reliable as his look into Vladimir Putin's heart, immediately followed by his assessment of the Russian president as a good man America could work with.
Because Egypt potentially plays a large role in furthering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to the rapid backward course Mubarak has pursued ever since he vowed to be Bush's buddy in spreading democracy in the Middle East.
True, Secretary of State Condi Rice did a lot of tut-tutting when Mubarak jailed the leader of his main opposition party, and she even postponed a visit to Cairo.
But, since then, it's been business as usual, with the Bush administration
continuing to describe this wonderful country, and its aging authoritarian
leader, as "moderate."
So what has happened to all the promises Mubarak made to our president? The aging autocrat took his first "significant" step toward democracy by introducing an amendment to the country's constitution. That measure, hailed by the Bush administration, purported to allow multiple candidates to run against him for the presidency for the first time.
Then came the fine print. The amendment placed severe restrictions on, for example, political parties that would be recognized as "legal" by the government. That eliminated a lot of the opposition.
Then the government proceeded with what almost everyone agrees were trumped-up charges against Ayman Nour, head of the leading opposition party. Mr. Nour is now in jail for forging signatures on his party's registration documents, even though his principal accuser has recanted this claim, which he now says was obtained under police duress.
Then came Egypt's parliamentary election, which Washington characterized as another important step on the road to democracy. That election was marked by widespread violence and voter disenfranchisement. Many people were killed and many more injured during the month-long election, and police cordoned off many polling stations to prevent people from voting.
Just to remind you, the violence flared after Egypt's Islamic movement, the
Muslim Brotherhood, won 88 seats, compared to the 15 it had held in the outgoing 454-member parliament. This happened despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is banned from participating in elections, and its candidates are obliged to run as "independents."
Egyptian authorities say the security measures were taken to enable Egyptians to vote in an orderly manner. Right! The police brutality had nothing to do with trying to prevent the Brotherhood from making even larger gains.
"The elections, with their negative and positive aspects, will be a matter
of intensive study by all parties to derive lessons to develop future party and
democratic actions," Mubarak's spokesman, Suleiman Awwad, quoted the president as telling the lawmakers.
"Negative aspects should be answered strongly so that they will not be repeated."
Study by whom? Mubarak's National Democratic Party? The state-controlled media? Not likely. The United States? The United Nations? When pigs fly!
As always, the deconstruction of this election fell to local and international NGOs who monitor bad governance and abuses of human rights. Lamentably, their reports attracted little press attention anywhere.
And those in Egypt who wrote reports did so at great risk. The reason is
that NGOs there are strangled by a law severely restricting their activities,
and by the "extra-legal role" of the country's Security Services. As noted in a
report by Human Rights Watch, "Civil society groups in Egypt face severe
restrictions under the law governing nongovernmental organizations. In addition, the country's security services scrutinize and harass civil society activists even though the law does not accord them any such powers."
The HRW report documents numerous cases where the security services rejected NGO registrations, decided who could serve on NGO boards of directors, harassed NGO activists, and interfered with donations reaching the groups.
In today's Egypt, the Security Services make their own laws. For more than
20 years, the country has been kept under a "state of emergency," with draconian laws giving sweeping powers to Mubarak's security apparatus. More recently, their activities have been trumpeted as a key part of the "global war on terror."
I am all too familiar with the unbridled power of Egypt's security services.
I was living in Cairo during the multiple trials of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an
Egyptian democracy activist. Dr. Ibrahim, then a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, headed a research and advocacy institute in Cairo that monitored elections, conducted voter education projects, and at times criticized the Egyptian government.
In the summer of 2000, he and 27 of his colleagues were arrested and tried.
All 28 defendants were found guilty and several were sent to jail. Ibrahim was sentenced to a seven-year term.
To America's great credit, the Clinton administration put extreme pressure
on the Egyptian authorities - even threatening to reduce US aid. Ibrahim's
conviction was finally overturned by the Egyptian Supreme Court, and he was ultimately acquitted of all charges in a second trial and released in 2003.
As forcefully underlined by Raja M. Kamal and Tom G. Palmer in a Washington Post op-ed article, "Egypt is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the 'freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media' ... The posting of opinions on a student's personal blog hardly qualifies as a threat to national security, to the reputation of the president or to public order."
And where is George W. Bush on this issue? Just gullible, and allowing himself to be snookered by the empty promises of one of the Middle East's least-moderate autocrats? Or making it obvious to all that the Bush administration values Egypt far more as an ally in its Global War on Terror than as a partner in its Global War for Democracy.