Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak Speech: Rights Groups Confused Too

By William Fisher

As the words of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s words blasted out into Tahrir Square, the jubilant mood of the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators there turned, first, to disbelief, then to anger.

In a rambling, often incoherent speech, the 82-year-old autocrat told the stunned crowd he would cede “some power” to his newly-minted Vice President, Omar Souleiman, but had no intention of resigning as president.

From the start of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations, the President’s total removal from office has been the bottom line. They were not likely to accept less.

For the pro-democracy forces, the crash at the end of the emotional roller-coaster they’d been rising all day was made worse by strong rumors that the Mubarak speech was to be his resignation, a possibility made to seem stronger when it was spoken to a Congressional hearing by Leon Panetta, head of the CIA, who termed his sources as usually reliable. Hopes were dashed before the actual speech by the Minister of Information, who denied that Mubarak was ready to resign.

That Murarak was handing over some of his powers to Suleiman drew boos and catcalls from the demonstrators.

One of them said to a television reporter: “That’s like Mubarak taking the country out of his left hand and giving it to his right hand. These two men are one.”

Souleiman has been Mubarak’s closest confidante for the past few years in running the military police state. Both men are from the military. Among other tasks, Sulieman has been Mubarak’s point man for relations with the CIA and the U.S. Military. As Egypt’s intelligence chief, his CIA connection put him in charge of the American government’s program of renditions. Several reputable sources have said he was personally involved in the interrogation and torture of some rendition victims.

The future relationship between the two leaders was arguably made more confusing by a “clarification” issued by the Egyptian Ambassador to the US. Speaking on CNN, he said, “Mubarak remains the de jure president of the country and Suleiman is the de facto president.”

Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown University, agreed that “that’s not what Mubarak said.”

Neil Hicks, a senior advisor to Human Rights First, told us, “What Mubarak said was unclear, perhaps purposefully so, but it suggested that he was delegating authority to Suleiman to oversee transition and specifically the Constitutional reforms he listed.”

International Human Rights groups were as confused as the rest of Mubarak’s audience. During the 17 days of the uprising, staff members of some of these organizations had been arrested and detained while others had been physically abused.

Amnesty International urged Egypt's authorities to ”end 30 years of repressive emergency rule and allow ordinary Egyptians to fully participate in shaping the country's future.” The organization called for a curb on the sweeping powers of security forces, the release of prisoners of conscience, and for safeguards against torture to be introduced in a new human rights action plan addressed to the country's authorities.

"Egyptians have suffered under a state of emergency for three decades; the decisions made in this momentous period will be critical for Egypt and the region," said Claudio Cordone, Senior Director at Amnesty International.

“Those now in power should view the activism on the streets of Cairo and other cities not as a threat, but as an opportunity to consign the systematic abuses of the past to history. Political transition must involve the people and foster respect for human rights," Cordone said.

Amnesty International is organizing a Global Day of Action for Egypt on
Saturday, February 12. Demonstrations are planned in 20 countries,
including the UK, Australia, Spain, France, South Korea and Norway, as well as U.S. cities including New York, Washington and several other cities.

“Mubarak’s speech is far from the needed break with the abusive system of the past 30 years,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Cosmetic changes are not enough to meet the Egyptian people’s demands for democracy and human rights. The US and EU governments should use their influence and their aid to encourage real reform.”

Human Rights Watch said that the Egyptian military, long an integral part of the government, has been a key actor in creating and defending the repressive system currently in place in Egypt.

The Egyptian military will likely play an important role in the run-up to future elections. Senior decision-makers include a number of individuals drawn from the security forces, such as Vice President Omar Suleiman, himself a former military officer and until January 29, 2011, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service; Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defense; and Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik, former head of the air force. Mubarak himself was head of the air force before then-President Anwar Sadat named him as vice president, Roth said.

He added, “Vice President Suleiman has rebuffed calls for the most basic reforms, such as repealing the Emergency Law, and instead claimed that Egyptians are ‘not ready for democracy,’” Roth said. “It’s not enough for the Egyptian government to promise constitutional change, they must dismantle the system behind the dictatorship.”

Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks said, “President Mubarak’s statement this evening has not advanced the transition towards a more democratic Egypt and has intensified the crisis. Proposals for constitutional reform supervised by regime loyalists hold no credibility. For democratic and human rights reforms to advance, power must shift decisively from President Mubarak and his military advisors, including Vice-President Omer Suleiman, to a more inclusive transitional authority.”

He continued: “This announcement increases the possibility of open confrontation between protestors and military forces, a situation that would represent the worst case scenario on the streets on Egypt. The Obama administration must use all their powers of persuasion to encourage Egypt’s leaders, and especially Egypt’s military establishment, to respond to the demands of the Egyptian people with an unequivocal and immediate move towards the formation of an inclusive transitional authority.”

Human Rights groups are concerned that the anger of pro-democracy protesters will place them in positions where they will be subject to harassment and police brutality. At the end of the speeches tonight, many of the demonstrators headed for the State Television building. That building is ordinarily heavily guarded by police and soldiers.

Egypt: The Army’s (Almost) Impossible Mission

By William Fisher

The Egyptian military today faces the most formidable mission in its history. And how it acquits itself in carrying out this mission could well determine the success of the pro-democracy movement.

The stakes are enormous.

On the morning after President Hosni Mubarak’s confusing, often incoherent speech last night to hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, the Egyptian military finds itself serving two masters. On the one side, Messrs. Mubarak, Suleiman, et al – i.e. The Regime. On the other, the Egyptian people – mobilized in their millions to demand real change they can believe in.

In the short term, the military will probably be prepared to support whatever reasonable actions Messrs. Mubarak and Suleiman think are needed to, at worst, maintain the status quo; at best, move the country toward creating the fertile soil in which democracy can flower.

Also in the short-term, I think we might now be reasonably assured that the military is not going to fire live ammunition into the Tahrir crowds, not going on a citywide sweep to arrest and detain – and torture -- human rights activists, and not hauling in the families of pro-democracy prisoners to threaten them with rape or worse.

But we should keep in mind that the military has already displayed its share of brutality against peaceful demonstrators in the current situation.

The Guardian reported that the Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the newspaper,

The Guardian says, “The military has claimed to be neutral, merely keeping anti-Mubarak protesters and loyalists apart. But human rights campaigners say this is clearly no longer the case, accusing the army of involvement in both disappearances and torture – abuses Egyptians have for years associated with the notorious state security intelligence (SSI) but not the army.”

The Guardian says it has spoken to detainees who say they have suffered extensive beatings and other abuses at the hands of the military in what appears to be an organized campaign of intimidation. Human rights groups have documented the use of electric shocks on some of those held by the army.

But, we would all like to think that this is a new day, and that military brutality is not going to happen again.

Reigning in the dreaded police working for the incredibly cruel and unbelievably corrupt Ministry of Interior is another dangerous aspect of the Military’s mission. For the moment, we have to take it on faith that the Military has reached or will soon reach some agreement with the police that will result in the temping down of their more barbarian instincts.

So the Military is not going to fire into the demonstrators, nor are they going to arrest, detain and torture them. The Military will also see that the police change their modus operandi and show some respect for the protestors.

The Military will join Vice President Suleiman in exhorting the pro-democracy forces to go home, go back to work, etc. The demonstrators, smelling the blood of success, will quite likely ignore this advice, and instead expand their peaceful demonstrations to other venues beyond Tahrir, the Ministry of Information and the Presidential Palace.

Vice President Suleiman, meanwhile, may continue his meetings with component groups within the opposition, Constitutional committees, and other bodies yet to be created to figure out how to rescind the dreaded 30-year Emergency Laws and make arrangements for full and fair elections in September or later. (Or to give the appearance of being hard at work while actually accomplishing nothing.)

That remains to be seen. Another of the great unknowns is the sincerity and enthusiasm with which Suleiman takes on this job. Clearly, the language Suleiman has used toward the pro-democracy forces thus far does not inspire confidence. He told them to go home. He told them Egypt is not ready for democracy.

In the tiny sliver of this work he has tried to do thus far, he has left behind a bitter taste among his fellow conferees. He met with a delegation of pro-democracy forces last week, and immediately announced the group had reached a consensus about what had to be done. The group almost as immediately denied that any such consensus had been reached about anything.

And they noted that Sulieman always arranges to meet with elements of the opposition but never with the opposition in its entirety. Divide and conquer, perhaps, Mr. Sulieman?

The fact is that, to the millions who are protesting, Mubarak and Suleiman are Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. After both had spoken last night, one demonstrator told a TV report: “It’s as if Mubarak took Egypt from his right hand and gave it to his left. These two guys are one.”

And, indeed, that would be substantially correct.

While Suleiman’s prospective leadership during a “transition” government was widely applauded by Western and Middle East governments, including our own, there appears to be nothing in his background that suggests he knows anything about democracy or its introduction to Egypt.

First and foremost, Suleiman is a soldier. He was head of Air Force intelligence, and is a longtime friend and confidante of Mubarak and a close ally of Washington. At a time when the nation was battling Islamic extremists, in 1993, he took over as head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service. He is 74 years old and, like Mr. Mubarak, fought in two wars with Israel.

Sulieman has a deep suspicion about Iran. He supports Egypt’s current arrangements with Israel. He has been and wants to continue to be tough on the Muslim Brotherhood. He has dealt with Hamas, Hezbollah and Sudan.

Jane Mayer of The New Yorker writes, “Suleiman is a well-known quantity in Washington. “Suave, sophisticated, and fluent in English, he has served for years as the main conduit between the United States and Mubarak,” she writes.

“While he has a reputation for loyalty and effectiveness, he also carries some controversial baggage from the standpoint of those looking for a clean slate on human rights. As I described in my book ‘The Dark Side,’ since 1993 Suleiman has headed the feared Egyptian general intelligence service. In that capacity, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions -- the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances,” Mayer writes.

Mayer goes on to note that “Every rendition was greenlighted at the highest levels of both the U.S. and Egyptian intelligence agencies. Edward S. Walker, Jr., a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, said that Sulieman was cognizant that there was a downside to ‘some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on’. But he was not squeamish, by the way."

Technically, Mayer writes, U.S. law required the C.I.A. to seek “assurances” from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the intelligence service, such assurances were considered close to worthless. As Michael Scheuer, a former C.I.A. officer who helped set up the practice of rendition, later testified before Congress, even if such “assurances” were written in indelible ink, “they weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.”

In Ron Suskind’s book, “The One Percent Doctrine.” Katherine Hawkins, a sharp-eyed human-rights lawyer who did legal research for Mayer’s book, points out that, according to Suskind, Suleiman was the C.I.A.’s liaison for the rendition of an Al Qaeda suspect known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi.

The Libi case is particularly controversial, in large part because it played a role in the building of the case for the American invasion of Iraq. It is generally considered a model of the proposition that torture is a very effective interrogation technique if falsehoods are the desired outcome.

Stephen Soldz, a Boston-based psychoanalysis and psychologist, notes that Suleiman's role was also highlighted in a Wikileaks cable, which said:

“In the context of the close and sustained cooperation between the USG and GOE on counterterrorism, Post believes that the written GOE assurances regarding the return of three Egyptians detained at Guantanamo represent the firm commitment of the GOE to adhere to the requested principles. These assurances were passed directly from Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) Chief [Sulieman] through liaison channels -- the most effective communication path on this issue. General [Sulieman’s] word is the GOE's guarantee, and the GOE's track record of cooperation on CT issues lends further support to this assessment.”

Meanwhile, the language used by Suleiman does not inspire confidence among the pro-democracy demonstrators. He has said he thinks Egypt is not ready for democracy. He has told the demonstrators to go home.

His detractors point to such language as indicators that he is not the man who can lead Egypt toward the future the demonstrators yearn for.

And, if this proves to be the case, Egypt would be left with one option: The Military would take control of the government and all the levers of power. They would vow to stay in power only until free and fair elections are held.

Given the blatant corruption and inhumane cruelty of the current regime, that would far from the worst outcome imaginable.