Friday, February 23, 2007


By William Fisher

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, Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman, 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," "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 that "This sentence is a disgrace. Almost three years ago to the day, President Mubarak promised to abolish prison sentences for press offences. 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 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 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 de-construction 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 them 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, “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.


By William Fisher

Following an appeals court’s divided decision upholding the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act, opponents of the measure are racing the clock to file an appeal to the US Supreme Court and have it heard during the court’s current term.

A spokesperson for the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York-based legal advocacy group that brought the original suit, told IPS it expected the appeal to be filed within the next two weeks and heard in the spring.

Earlier this week, a federal appeals court ruled 2-1 that detainees in US custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have no right to challenge their imprisonment in federal courts. The decision upheld the core of the Military Commissions Act (MCA), which was passed in a close vote last year by a Republican-controlled congress. The law stripped federal civilian courts of jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions, giving President George W. Bush the right to indefinitely hold detainees outside the US without charges. The ruling affects some 400 prisoners still held at Guantanamo Bay, but could also establish a precedent affecting prisoners held by the US in Afghanistan and in CIA “secret prisons” in other countries.

The Court’s majority decision found that overruling the MCA would “defy the will of congress,” and asserted that habeas corpus does not apply to foreigners who are not in the US. It effectively ruled that the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay is a property leased by the US from Cuba, and that Cuba has sovereignty over it.

Two other appeals courts as well as the US Supreme Court have previously upheld Guantanamo detainees' rights to contest their incarceration in federal courts, first in Rasul v. Bush in 2004 and then in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld in 2006. But in its Hamdan decision, the high court also said that Congress could take further action on the issue. That action resulted in the Military Commissions Act, setting up special military trials for the detainees and stripping civilian courts of jurisdiction.

In her appeals court dissent, Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote that habeas corpus may indeed apply to foreign nationals outside the US and that the lawmakers’ action had "exceeded the powers of Congress.” The US Constitution stipulates that habeas may be suspended only "when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." This is likely to be at the heart of the appeal to the Supreme Court.

The US Justice Department (DOJ) expressed approval of the ruling. It believes that foreign detainees enjoy no constitutional rights when they are detained in other countries.

Shayana Kadidal, managing attorney of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative, told IPS that the MCA “also allows for evidence obtained through torture, - a violation of the Geneva Conventions - and greatly widens the scope of who the president can label an ‘enemy combatant.’

The non-profit New York-based CCR represents many of the Guantanamo detainees and has played a central role in mobilizing legal representation for many others in custody.

Attorney Kadidal said, "This decision empowers the President to do whatever he wishes to prisoners without any legal limitation as long as he does it off shore, and encourages such notorious practices as extraordinary rendition and a contempt for international human rights law. Two of the three judges held that the President and the military may hold even innocent persons for as long they want without ever charging them so long as they are held offshore.”

He added, “The opinion relies on hypertechnical analysis to circumvent the Supreme Court’s clear mandate in their 2004 ruling: the detainees have the right to test the legality of their detentions in federal court. In every respect – the status of Guantanamo, the history of habeas corpus – the opinion ignores reality in favor of abstractions in order to come to the conclusion that even people the military admits are innocent and can be released have no right of access to the federal courts.”

Kadidal charged that the court majority “is wrong on history as well – there are a myriad of examples of habeas review being granted to persons the king had detained in distant garrisons or islands like Jersey to keep them out of the reach of the English courts. Moreover, on the majority’s reading, the common-law and constitutional rights to habeas have been frozen in time since 1789, and their opinion suggests that even US citizens could be kept in detention as long as the president holds them outside the territory of the United States.”

He said he expects that “this will be the third time the DC Circuit’s Guantanamo rulings are reversed by the Supreme Court.”

Other human rights and legal advocacy groups have also condemned the appeal court ruling. Typical is Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA, who said, “The appellate court's ruling that Guantanamo detainees may not challenge their detention in U.S. courts is an affront to the American justice system which had always been known for its commitment to due process and the rule of law. Hopefully an appeal to the Supreme Court will overturn this shameful decision. In the meantime, Amnesty International urges Congress to act quickly to reverse the damage caused by the Military Commissions Act of 2006.”

The lower court’s decision came as congress adjourned for the President’s Day week-long recess, but congressional Democrats -- now a majority in both houses -- have already introduced legislation, co-sponsored by a powerful Republican, to amend the Military Commissions Act and restore habeas rights for detainees.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and that committee's senior Republican, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, have introduced a bill that would restore habeas corpus rights.

Another bill was introduced recently by Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who is candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Dodd measure would return habeas corpus rights to detainees and clarify other parts of the law.

The proposed legislation also drew plaudits from parts of the US religious community. For example, The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) announced its support for the Dodd and Leahy-Specter legislation.

"This legislation is urgently needed," said Jeanne Herrick-Stare, Chair of NRCAT
Coordinating Committee, "to not only restore the core elements of due process to our treatment of detainees, but also to restore the United States' role as a world leader in human rights.”

Congressional sources say the appeals court decision is likely to accelerate legislative action, but point to the possibility that President Bush would exercise his veto power. Bush believes detainee policy is a central tenet of his “global war on terror.” He has used his veto power only once in his six years in office – to nullify an act to permit wider federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Overturning a presidential veto requires the votes of two-thirds of Congress and, even with many Republicans currently trying to distance themselves from an unpopular president, it is unclear whether that many votes could be mustered.

More cynical observers say congressional Democrats would welcome a Bush veto, since that will leave the issue on the table for the 2008 elections.

But even if that’s true, we can expect some passionate oratory on this issue when congress returns next week.