Monday, February 13, 2012

Judith Miller Defends “The Hunted Men Who Brought Growth and Reform” to Egypt

Judith Miller, you may recall, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning ex-New York Times journalist who left the paper after it was discovered that she was Bush-era Vice President Dick Cheney’s “stenographer.” A Times investigation found serious errors in many of her stories about weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the Iraq War. She also spent three months in jail for refusing to reveal her sources in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity. .

Well, Judy’s at it again!

She is trying to gin up support for two Egyptian men who have been convicted of corruption, and who are currently in exile.

The subjects of Miller’s current defense are Youssef Boutros Ghali, the former finance minister of Egypt, who Miller says was “once the highest-ranking Coptic Christian in the country since the revolution,” and Rachid Mohamed Rachid, who became Egypt's Minister of Foreign Trade and Industry in July 2004. Two years later, the ministry was expanded to include domestic trade within Egypt and was renamed the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). He has been described as the first businessman ever to hold a cabinet position in Egypt and as a reformer.

Writing in the conservative journal, Newsmax, Miller says, Only a year ago, Ghali was among Egypt's most prominent officials. “With a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had given up a lucrative post at the International Monetary Fund to return to Cairo 18 years ago to help transform his nation's moribund state-owned economy.”

She added, “On several key issues, the reformers had finally won, making Egypt what the IMF called an ‘emerging success story,’ one of the region's ‘fastest-growing economies’."

“But since the January 2011 uprising at Tahrir Square, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak in only 18 days, the military-led civilian transitional government has been waging a judicial jihad against Ghali and others who helped free Egypt's economy,” she wrote.

Characterizing the two exiles as economic heroes, Miller said, “Once credited by U.S. officials for policies producing annual growth of some 7 percent for several years — foreign and domestic investment in industries that private investors had once shunned, and robust job creation — they have now been blamed not only for a culture of corruption that is nearly as old as Egypt's pyramids, but also for Mubarak's political failings.”

“Although the free-market policies resulted in a more equitable distribution of income than that of India, Mexico, Brazil, and several other emerging economies, the reformers are now hunted men,” she said.

Convicted by a Cairo criminal court of "squandering public resources," based on often bogus evidence in sham trials that in Ghali's case lasted only six minutes, they are either in jail, in exile, or on the run.

“Travel bans and Interpol warrants have been issued for them, passports canceled, visas revoked, and their property and other assets in Egypt have been frozen…The scapegoating of the reformers and the reversal of their policies have increased the likelihood of an economic meltdown,” she wrote.

In an interview, Rachid said that to reignite growth, Egypt must restore security, install a government that can rule for three or four years, rather than three or four months, and finally, stop attacking the free-market system for short-term political gain. "Without this, investor confidence in Egypt will not be restored," he warned.

Miller continues: “The reformers are now widely dispersed, exchanging news and political gossip through emails and by cellphone.”

Some, like Ghali and Rachid, “the first businessman ever to hold a senior Cabinet post in Egypt, have sought refuge in other countries. Others, like Ahmed Maghrabi, the former minister of housing, and Yusuf Wali, the former agriculture minister who hails from one of Egypt's most prominent land-owning clans, are in jail.”

“Once-powerful men courted by the world's financial elite, they are now largely isolated, abandoned by the country they struggled to change. Most have been assailed by Egypt's vituperative, scandal-mongering press,” she wrote.

After the six-minute trial in June, Ghali was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 30 years in prison for allegedly using a Finance Ministry printer in 2010 to produce election materials for his campaign for parliament. American officials say he was also convicted of squandering public money by using 102 cars held in customs for his personal use.

Ghali's lawyer had said that some 100 cars had been impounded for customs duty violations, and that Ghali had given them not to family or friends, but to fellow ministers and his own deputies who were entitled to official cars, but whose cars were old and kept breaking down. The transaction had saved Egyptian taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds, Miller wrote.

She continued: “Diplomats say Ghali's efforts to reform Egypt's bureaucracy required creative maneuvering. In 2004, the Finance Ministry, with its 20,000 employees and $50 million budget, had almost no computers. The ministry's two word-processors were reserved for the minister's office, which meant that Egypt's budget, all 49,000 accounts of it, had to be calculated and consolidated by hand. No ministry knew the size of another's budget, and the military liked it that way.”

“The revolution, with its insistence on Islam as the source of Egyptian identity, coupled with the military's traditional hostility to Christians, does not bode well for secular, pro-Western activists like Ghali.”

“Until he was named finance minister, no Copt had ever risen to so high a civilian post in modern times. Even then, a few extremist Salafi sheiks issued fatwas denouncing his promotion: Islam prohibited putting Christians in charge of Muslim treasure, they opined.”

Miller wrote that many of the “most savage attacks on Ghali in the Egyptian press have directly or indirectly touched on his religion, implying that a Christian's loyalty to Egypt may be questioned.”

Miller concludes: “Many Egyptians, friends say, are gradually acknowledging that those they have banished may not be corrupt, and that even if some of them are, Egypt's poverty and income disparities cannot be mainly their fault.”

Seeking confirmation of Miller’s assertions, we asked for the opinion of one of the most widely respected of Egypt scholars, Egyptian-born Samer Shehata, professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

Here’s what he told us:

“I read the article when it came out and it is filled with inaccuracies and distortions. For example, Ms. Miller claims that, until Ghali, no Copt had ever risen to such a high position. In fact, his uncle Boutrus, was Foreign Minister under Sadat.”

Shehata concedes that “Ghali might not have been as corrupt as Ahmed Ezz (the billionaire steel tycoon who has emerged as perhaps the most hated symbol of the old system) but there is absolutely no doubt that he misused the 100 plus cars for personal use and advantage. We know this beyond doubt.”

Shehata continues: Ghali was part of a criminal regime justifying their actions, economic, political, etc. And although there were likely some bigoted reports about him in the press, the primary reason he is despised in Egypt has nothing to do with his religion (nor is it framed as such) but about his real estate tax plan, being part of the regime, and other more specific allegations.”

Shehata concludes: “Miller is hardly a serious journalist.”

Welcome back, Judy. Dick Cheney would be proud of you.

Iraq on Verge of Violent Chaos

By William Fisher

As Iraq proceeds with its grisly hangathon -- since the beginning of 2012, Iraq has executed at least 65 prisoners – and 2007-type violence is threatening to bring the country to its knees, Iraq scholars are pointing to even deeper signs that the country is on the precipice of collapse.

Days after the last US troops departed, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved to indict Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges and sought to remove Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq from his position.

According to Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), Maliki’s move triggered “a major political crisis that fully revealed Iraq as an unstable, undemocratic country governed by raw competition for power and barely affected by institutional arrangements. Large-scale violence immediately flared up again, with a series of terrorist attacks against mostly Shi’i targets reminiscent of the worst days of 2006.”

“But there is more to the crisis than an escalation of violence. The tenuous political agreement among parties and factions reached at the end of 2010 has collapsed. The government of national unity has stopped functioning, and provinces that want to become regions with autonomous powers comparable to Kurdistan’s are putting increasing pressure on the central government. Unless a new political agreement is reached soon, Iraq may plunge into civil war or split apart,” she said, adding:

“The U.S. occupation tried to superimpose on Iraq a set of political rules that did not reflect either the dominant culture or the power relations among political forces. And while cultures and power relations are not immutable, they do not change on demand to accommodate the goals of outsiders.”

Ottoway believes that Iraq “is facing a real threat of political disintegration.” She reminds us that in 2007, “the United States held the country together forcibly, but the infusion of new troops could not secure a lasting agreement among Iraqis.”

However, she said,” This time, the outcome depends on whether the political factions that dominate Iraq and tear it apart find it in their interest to forge a real compromise or conclude that they would benefit more from going in separate directions.”

Ottoway concludes: The government of national unity has stopped functioning, and provinces that want to become regions with autonomous powers comparable to Kurdistan’s are putting increasing pressure on the central government. Unless a new political agreement is reached soon, Iraq may plunge into civil war or split apart.

Meantime, Iraq is evidently shooting to overtake China and Iran as the world-wide leader in executions. Human Rights groups, the United Nations, and others, are aiming dire warnings toward Iraq.

For example, Human Rights Watch is calling on Iraqi authorities to halt executions and abolish the death penalty. HRW’s Joe Stork said Iraq must overhaul its justice system. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called the numerous executions “terrifying.”

Pillay said she was shocked at reports that 34 individuals, including two women, were executed in Iraq on 19 January following their conviction for various crimes.
“Even if the most scrupulous fair trial standards were observed, this would be a terrifying number of executions to take place in a single day,” Pillay said.

She added: “Given the lack of transparency in court proceedings, major concerns about due process and fairness of trials, and the very wide range of offences for which the death penalty can be imposed in Iraq, it is a truly shocking figure.”

Iraqi authorities should halt all executions and abolish the death penalty, HRW said. Since the beginning of 2012, Iraq has executed at least 65 prisoners, 51 of them in January, and 14 more on February 8, for various offenses.“The Iraqi government seems to have given state executioners the green light to execute at will,”said Joe Stork, deputy HRW’s Deputy Middle East director. “The government needs to declare an immediate moratorium on all executions and begin an overhaul of its flawed criminal justice system.”HRW is particularly concerned that Iraqi courts admit as evidence confessions obtained under coercion. It says the government should disclose the identities, locations, and status of all prisoners on death row, the crimes for which they have been convicted, court records for their being charged, tried, and sentenced, and details of any impending executions.

A Justice Ministry official confirmed to Human Rights Watch on February 8 that authorities had executed 14 prisoners earlier in the day. “You should expect more executions in the coming days and weeks,” the official added.According to the United Nations, more than 1,200 people are believed to have been sentenced to death in Iraq since 2004. The number of prisoners executed during that period has not been revealed publicly. Iraqi law authorizes the death penalty for close to 50 crimes, including terrorism, kidnapping, and murder, but also including such offenses as damage to public property.Criminal trials in Iraq often violate minimum guarantees, Human Rights Watch said. Many defendants are unable to pursue a meaningful defense or to challenge evidence against them, and lengthy pretrial detention without judicial review is common.

The total number of individuals sentenced to death in Iraq since 2004 is believed to stand at more than 1,200. “Most disturbingly,” said Pillay, “we do not have a single report of anyone on death row being pardoned, despite the fact there are well documented cases of confessions being extracted under duress.”

“I call on the Government of Iraq to implement an immediate moratorium on the institution of death penalty,” the High Commissioner said, noting that around 150 countries have now either abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, or introduced a moratorium.