Monday, August 24, 2009

Mubarak: Autocrat With Chutzpah

By William Fisher

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, writing last week on health care reform, said “There’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness.”

But as I read his column, my brain seemed to wander, not to health care, but to another major news event of that week: The visit to the White House of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

But why thoughts of this 81-year-old autocrat? Krugman said it: “There’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness.”

I don’t mean that I think Obama should deploy American Crusaders into the Land of the Nile to establish a liberal, pro-Western, American-style democracy. George W. Bush tried that in Iraq and we’ve seen how well that adventure turned out. That’s not realism; that’s hubris.

What I mean is that for a generation, the U.S. has generously bribed Egypt year in and year out for not again trying to invade Israel. And what Egypt has to show for our trouble is, well, zero, zilch, nada. Egypt has done next to nothing to further an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And it has done nothing to improve the economic, social or political life of its people. Yet we persist in repeating what we’ve always done and expecting a different result.

Some would say that’s a great definition of insanity. But that’s what has passed for realism in our foreign policy in the Middle East.

Today’s rationale for keeping the big bucks flowing to the Mubarak regime is that Egypt will play a major role in finally ending the Israel-Palestine disaster. Except that we’ve seen this movie before. We seem to have a knack for reaching out for the slenderest of reeds to hang onto.

During the years I lived in Cairo, I witnessed the rhetoric of the State-controlled media. It was and is institutionalized government propaganda – always anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic. (Israel and the Palestinian Authority, of course, constantly add fuel to the fire with their own propaganda machines.)

But the Mubarak regime has repeatedly used the Israeli-Palestinian impasse as a fig-leaf to obscure its own monumental deficiencies – and later used Bush’s “war on terror” mantra as an even more dramatic cover story. Does this sound like the job description of an honest broker?

I also read translations of some of the revisionist-history textbooks used in Egyptian schools – proclaiming, for example, Egypt’s “victory” over the Israelis in Sinai. I talked with upper-class, well-educated college students and members of my own staff about the Holocaust. Some of them denied it altogether; others said it resulted in the destruction of only one million Jews.

And what’s been done with all of our aid? Well, to say Egypt is an economic and political basket-case would be generous to basket-cases. Its continuing stagnation is the result of a toxic combination of overpopulation, lack of proper education and training, the effect of decades of failed economic policies, rampant corruption, and the absence of anything remotely resembling good governance.

Egypt has received more than $50 billion in military and economic aid from the United States since 1977, when it agreed to a peace treaty with Israel. Yet, long before the world collapsed into the current recession, unemployment in Egypt was off the charts – well over 10 per cent in most years. Kids who graduated from schools like Cairo University and the American University in Cairo – many with Master’s degrees – were driving taxis for tourists. And now the tourism industry is on life support. Many other Egyptians have joined the growing brain-drain to Europe and North America.

And the worst is probably yet to come. The labor force is growing at a far faster rate than the demand for labor. So the future looks even bleaker for Egpyt’s 80 million people.

In recent years, Mubarak and his Ministers have made countless speeches about entrepreneurism and how it is alive and well in Egypt. But entrepreurism appears to be only for those with lots of time on their hands. For example, what should be a relatively simple task of starting a new business can and does take months lost in the mother of all Byzantine bureaucracies. And if you happen to be one of those aspiring entrepreneurs, but you don’t happen to belong to one of the country’s “good families,” you can forget about getting a loan from any bank. Banks in Egypt lend to people who don’t need loans.

Corruption – a pandemic in the Middle East – is everywhere in Egypt. Some of it qualifies as petty corruption, like bribing the phone company manager to turn your phone on or paying off the supervisor at the police academy to say that you are three inches taller that you actually are to meet the Academy’s requirements.

But there’s also big-time corruption, like unlawfully importing toxic agricultural chemicals, and relabeling them to secure a higher mark-up. The American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt reports that corruption in the import-export supply chain adds about $30 to every single transaction. That makes Egypt uncompetitive and its Customs officials comfortable.

But it’s political corruption that will be Mubarak’s legacy. In preparation for his visit to Washington, the aging strongman granted an interview with Charlie Rose. Here are a few of the choice statements Mubarak made, with a straight face, and largely unchallenged by the sychophantic Rose:

Mubarak: Look, we are a large country. And we have stability here. We enjoy stability…It is not on my mind to have my son inherit me…the choice and election of the president is open to the population in its entirety. It is the decision of the population to elect who would represent people. It is not for me to decide that. It is the decision of the people to elect the person who they trust… There is freedom of speech…The more good opposition the more stronger our (inaudible).

Rose: Do you think the Bush administration was right to promote democracy in the region in the way that it did?

Mubarak: No…We do not accept pressures in politics or in interior domestic politics from any administration with due respect to all governments. We do not accept pressures on the pretext of domestic reform. It has to be home-grown. Reform has to be home-grown. And it is what the people demand…to accept pressure from an administration or another, no. This pressure might be against the interest of the people. I respond to the demands of the people…Democracy is there in Egypt. We have freedoms that were not there before. We have an election of the president. We have freedom of the press. We have about 600 dailies and weeklies, give or take…We are doing reforms based on the demands of the people.

Rose: It is said that (Obama) will not publicly discuss human rights. He does not want it to be an issue, but that he will bring it up in private.

Mubarak: Your concept of human rights is a merely political one. Human rights are not only political. You have social rights. You have the right to education. You have the right to health. You have the right to a job. There are many other rights. And we are doing well on these fronts…We have a human rights commission…There have been many sentences against people who have breached human rights. It is not merely a political concept. It is social. It is health.

Rose: Much is written about the fact that in the election, the most — the last election in which there were more candidates, that since then, you have moved away and that you have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mubarak: These people whom you are talking about cannot form a political party, because our constitution maintains and stipulates that a political party shall never be based on a religious basis. They cannot form a political party. And this is part and parcel of the constitution as amended by the people. But the Muslim Brotherhood are there as (members of Parliament) as individual (members) within the Parliament. We have about 80 of them.

Rose: You've had emergency rule since 1981. Emergency rule. You should be confident enough in your leadership not to have to….

Mubarak: You do not grasp fully the emergency law. It has been there since the days of the British occupation. And it used to be called marshal law. We confine our recourse to the emergency law, to terrorist crimes. Otherwise it is the rule of law under the normal laws through the…courts of law.

Rose: But is it necessary?

Mubarak: We have two choices, either to issue a law to combat terrorism, which will be a permanent law. It was refused because nobody wanted a permanent law. And the second choice is emergency law that will be used exclusively against terrorist crimes. We have not used it for any intent to close down a newspaper or to contain or limit any movement, any freedom of movement.

Rose: The history of Egypt for the last 28 years is the history of one man, Hosni Mubarak…What is your legacy? What are you proud of?

Mubarak: What I will leave behind is that I have been working for — in public service for 60 years. I took part — I saw action. I rebuilt the country after military action. We revamped the entire infrastructure of Egypt. We are improving education. We are expanding education. We are building universities. We are doing many, many other things.

Well, one of the most credible truth-tellers about Egypt is a new organization called Voices for a Democratic Egypt (VDE), on whose Board of Advisors sits one of Egypt’s most courageous human rights advocates -- Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, founding chair of the Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.

Ibrahim was arrested in 2000 for accepting a grant from the European Union and using the funds for “defaming Egypt’s national character.” He was imprisoned by the Mubarak regime, acquitted in a second trial, and now lives in exile in the U.S.

VDE aims to provide a forum for activism and a strong platform and voice for those striving for democratic transformation in Egypt. The day before Mubarak had his photo-op with Obama, VDE held a news conference in Washington to unveil a new report on what’s really happening in Egypt.

Here’s some of what the report had to say:

Egypt’s human rights record over the last two years has shown demonstrable regression on all fronts. A state of emergency has been in force since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 that suspends basic constitutional protections, and was renewed in May 2008 despite presidential campaign promises to the contrary.

Prisoner Abuse

Dozens of torture cases were documented in 2008 and 2009, including several resulting in death. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) has documented at least 40 cases of torture since 2008, at least 14 of which ended in death by police officers, more than five times as 2007. It is widely known that most torture cases go unreported and undetected and that torturers largely go unpunished except in a few highly publicized cases. And individual cases of torture at police stations continue to be reported with little to no response from the authorities in investigating incidents or holding the perpetrators accountable.

Press Freedom

Mubarak boasted to Charlie Rose about the growth in free media. But last year, the Arab League -- under the leadership of the Egyptian Minister of Media – voted for a new measure “regulating television, radio, and satellite media.”

That document is now paralleled by an Egyptian draft law to “regulate” visual, audio, and electronic media. It prohibits satellite television broadcasts that "negatively affect social peace, national unity, public order, and public morals," or "defame leaders, or national and religious symbols" of Arab states. Egypt's state-controlled Nilesat satellite subsequently dropped three channels that broadcast programs featuring government critics and victims of human rights abuses.

Then there’s the continuing harassment of journalists and owners of media outlets. Five newspaper editors were prosecuted for insulting President Mubarak and / or affiliates of the NDP (Mubarak’s National Democratic Party). Plainclothes police shut down the Cairo News Company (CNC) after it supposedly supplied Al Jazeera with images of anti-government protests. An Al Jazeera reporter was convicted of harming "the dignity of the country" with a documentary about torture in Egyptian police stations. Cairo security officers arrested several journalists and bloggers who used the social-networking website Facebook to call for strikes; and security officers in New Cairo stripped and beat one of them for the same activity.

The authorities in Alexandria arrested fourteen members of the "6 April Youth" group and jailed them for two weeks without charge after they sang patriotic songs and refused to disperse when ordered. Several bloggers have been arrested and “disappeared,” including a number affiliated with the April 6 movement, several Islamists, and a Christian blogger. Another blogger was incarcerated for over three months and subjected to torture, including electrical shock, suspension, mental abuse, and solitary confinement. And one other blogger continues to be incarcerated for charges of “insulting religion” and the president.

The Judiciary

Laws affecting a state of emergency and suspending normal constitutional protections continue to undermine the judiciary notably through: (1) imposition of “administrative” detention orders which supersede normal court decisions; (2) trial of civilians in military courts; (3) so-called Hisba lawsuits
brought by “private citizens” affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) against dissidents, writers, artists, etc.; and (4) parallel court systems created through emergency legislation, including state security courts and emergency courts that do not afford due process.

An example of prosecutions of civilians in exceptional courts was the trial of individuals in December 2008 who had participated in the April 6 national strike. In December 2008, the state security emergency court convicted 22 defendants from that strike. Trial in this exceptional court involves denial of due process as well as the right to appeal, and has been decried by Egyptian and international human rights organizations

Freedom of Association

There was continued repression of community organizers, NGOs, and individuals exercising their internationally-protected rights to freedom of association. Several NGOs were dissolved in 2007 and 2008 on arbitrary grounds and without due process, including for “endangering national security” and receipt of foreign funding.

Security officials blocked several meetings held by human rights organizations and acted to block international activities of NGOs.Egypt has also acted to block substantive efforts at the enforcement of human rights through participation in international bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council.

Religious Freedom

The climate for Egypt’s largest religious minority, Coptic
Christians, remained difficult. In February 2008, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in favor of twelve defendants seeking to return to Christianity after previously converting to Islam, but ruled that their national ID cards should indicate that they “used to be Muslim,” which ensures continued hardship and discrimination against the converts.

Other religious minorities, including the Qur’anists, an offshoot of Sunni Islam, and Baha’is, continue to be the targets of discrimination. Baha’is are not allowed to build houses of worship or practice their faith publicly.

The government continues to stall on the passage of a national uniform law on construction of houses of worship that would remedy the hardship Copts face in building or repairing their churches. Copts – who represent about five per cent of the population -- continue to suffer from discrimination in public employment and are underrepresented in high leadership positions. And Coptic history continues to be conspicuously absent from educational textbooks.

Don’t you wonder why Charlie Rose failed to challenge so many of Mubarak’s answers? Like “Democracy is there in Egypt.” Or “There is freedom of speech.” Or “I respond to the demands of the people.” Or “We are doing reforms based on the demands of the people.” Or “We have a human rights commission…There have been many sentences against people who have breached human rights.”

I think the Washington Post had it just about right when it said in an editorial on the eve of the Mubarak-Obama meeting, “Middle East ‘realists,’ who seem to abound in the new administration, argue that Mr. Mubarak's help is needed to deliver an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and to contain pro-Iranian radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. But it's likely that they, like many U.S. policymakers before them, will be disappointed by the disparity between Mr. Mubarak's words and actions. For several years now, the Egyptian regime has been promising Washington that it will broker an end to the rift between Hamas and the more moderate Palestinian Authority, end the smuggling of weapons to militants in Gaza and obtain the release of an Israeli soldier held hostage since 2006. It has failed on all three counts.”

WAPO concluded: “No amount of coddling by Mr. Obama is likely to change the behavior of Mr. Mubarak, who has 28 years of experience in deflecting U.S. initiatives…If Mr. Obama focuses his attention today on Mr. Mubarak and his dubious diplomatic contributions -- as opposed to the Egyptian people and their legitimate demands for political change -- the president will ignore the lessons of history.”

I hope Obama will not ignore the lessons of history. I hope he will not be so focused on Egypt’s potential to help with the Israeli-Palestinian debacle that he will put Mubarak’s widespread repression on a back burner somewhere. I am not proposing a do-over of the blunt-force-trauma approach of George W. Bush. I am suggesting that our aid dollars give us considerable leverage; yet there is a sense that Mubarak now thinks we need him more than he needs us.

That’s a betrayal of hundreds of very courageous Egyptian advocates for human rights and good governance who put their lives and livelihoods on the line every day. The least our president should do is recognize their existence, their sacrifice, and their contributions to “change we can believe in.”

We ignore them at our peril. Because, if participative democracy ever comes to Egypt, it will be these men and women who will drive it.

Meanwhile, as Krugman wrote, ““There’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness.”

The author served as a State Department and USAID consultant in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. He lived in Cairo for several years.