By William Fisher
The Egyptian government’s crackdown on political opponents continued unabated in advance of parliamentary elections November 28, even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the “partnership” between the two countries as “a cornerstone of stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.”
In the latest example of a widespread campaign of media repression, Kareem Nabil, an Egyptian blogger who completed a four-year prison term, was still being detained and beaten at the State Security Intelligence (SSI) headquarters in Alexandria by security officers, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
Nabil had been released from Burj al-Arab Prison on 6 November. He was subsequently re-arrested by security officers in Alexandria without charges.
A student at Cairo's state-run religious university, Al-Azhar, Nabil was convicted in 2006 by an Alexandria court of insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak, who he called a dictator.
Nabil’s re-arrest was seen by human rights activists as, in the words of an unnamed opposition figure, “another nail in the coffin of Egyptian democracy.” The government’s efforts to stifle opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) have included firing an influential newspaper editor, revoking the licenses of TV channels, arresting bloggers, changing the rules governing political slogans, and fabricating infractions to disqualify opposition candidates from running.
As the government’s campaign continued, the U.S. Secretary of State hosted a visit by Egypt’s foreign minister, Aboul Gheit, and Egypt’s Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Gheit confirmed that he and Mrs. Clinton did not discuss the forthcoming election.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has come under increasing criticism from both conservatives and liberals for not being forceful enough in speaking out publicly regarding the parliamentary election and the presidential election, which is to follow.
Conservatives – and neoconservatives -- are urging Obama to reinstate the “democracy-building” programs implemented by the George W. Bush administration, Obama’s predecessor. But they appear to be far more concerned about Egypt’s continuing role as “mediator” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Liberals are pushing for more unequivocal rhetoric from the White House comdemning the renewal of Egypt’s 30-year-old “emergency” laws and the widely-reported harrassment of opposition political institutions and individuals.
The country’s 82-year-old leader since 1981, Hosni Mubarak, promised the U.S. he would repeal the emergency laws, which give Egypt’s security services the unfettered right to arrest and detain people without due process or judicial review.
The Obama administration has been most outspoken regarding the emergency laws, whose renewal it regards as a broken promise. It has also publicly condemned the June murder of blogger Khaled Saeed, who was dragged out of an Internet café and beaten to death on the street. He had recently posted a video online exposing police corruption.
Human rights advocates charge that the government has kidnapped bloggers and Internet activists, tortured them, and then imprisoned them until the bruises on their bodies have disappeared so there is no evidence of abuse.
One of those advocates, Hossam Bahgat, has told IPS that democracy-building programs can only be effective if they are “inside-out” – adopted by indigenous people who live and work in a country or a community, and not superimposed on them.
Bahgat, who heads a not-for-profit organization known The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), was in New York to receive an award from Human Rights Watch (HRW) celebrating the “valor of individuals who put their lives on the line to protect the dignity and rights of others.”
HRW said Baghat is “a leading voice against the prosecution and harassment of individuals based on their religious beliefs or private sexual conduct. He has played a prominent role in exposing the government's failure to prosecute sectarian violence against Coptic Christians.”
Baghat’s organization recently won a case against the Interior Ministry on behalf of Egypt's Baha'i citizens, a minority facing frequent violence and discrimination. Egyptians may now obtain official documents without revealing their religious convictions, or being forced to identify themselves as Muslims, Christians, or Jews.
Baghat’s group recently launched an advocacy campaign to combat sectarianism in Egypt. The organization said the campaign is a joint movement and “an appeal for collective action to eliminate sectarianism and strengthen the values of equal citizenship and shared existence in our common nation without religious or faith-based discrimination.”
“While the movement is being launched by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights as part of our ongoing efforts to defend equality and freedom of religion and belief, we realize that it cannot be successful if it remains ours alone," Bahgat said.
"We firmly believe that this campaign will not meet with success unless it becomes a voice for Egyptians who believe that we are all in this together and those united by a common fear for our future due to rising social divisions, sectarian tension and a mindset that divides the country into an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ he said, adding:
“At the same time, we believe many people are hopeful about the possibility of ending sectarianism and working together to build a country that upholds all citizens’ right to equality and dignity.”
The Mubarak regime has been criticized for many years for what opponents call a nationwide campaign of persecution and discrimination against the Egyptian Coptic church. Copts are Christians who make up about five per cent of the Egyptian population.
Baghat told IPS the EIPR campaign involves the production, screening and distribution of media materials and short public service announcements on the dangers of sectarianism. These are available for viewing on the group’s YouTube page.
There is also be a blog on which one can join the campaign, as well as a Facebook page to allow supporters to keep up with the news, express their opinions, take part in the debate, and facilitate citizen reporting of sectarian incidents.
From a U.S. perspective, despite the “cumbaya” diplomacy on display during the Egyptian foreign minister’s visit to the U.S. State Department, Egypt is likely to continue to be the target of both liberal and conservative scorn.
But neither end of the political spectrum believes Washington has the clout to influence the upcoming elections. And Egyptian voters are both powerless and uninformed.
As one prominent activist, Bahey el-din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, wrote recently, “The outcome of the elections has already been determined -- all that remains is the official announcement of the results after 28 November, in favor of the ruling National Democratic Party.”