Egypt democracy roundup

Human Rights Watch has published an open letter to President Mubarak stating its concerns over recent crackdowns:

We are therefore extremely dismayed by the radical intolerance of your government towards peaceful political dissent, as evidenced the repressive measures taken over the past several days. We urge you in the strongest terms to ensure the immediate release from custody of those wrongfully arrested for exercising the rights guaranteed to them by international human rights law and the Egyptian Constitution. We also call on you to call on the Minister of Interior to cease harassment of peaceful critics by security forces.


HRW has probably conducted the most thorough reviews of "generic" human rights violations in Egypt -- such as the way people are routinely treated in prisons and so on -- as well as the most in-depth research on specific campaigns, such as the one against gays. (See their Egypt page.)

Also today, as predicted, the planned demonstration by the kefaya movement at the Cairo International Book Fair was disrupted. I wasn't there, but a friend reports that a couple of dozens of activists were surrounded and pushed back into a bus shelter by several layers of amn al markazi troops (Central Security, the standard riot police) and plainclothes baltagui, who are street thugs who are hired to beat up protesters during certain types of security operations (they were used a lot during the 2000 elections and the various demonstrations against the Iraq war.)

The New York Times also came out with an editorial linking Egypt's democratization and President Bush's State of the Union speech. It's short, so here it is in full:

President Bush was right in exhorting Egypt, in his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, to be a country that could "show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." The helpful role of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, as a peace broker between Israelis and Palestinians should not earn him immunity from criticism of his self-perpetuating dictatorship. After nearly 24 years in power, he appears ready to add 6 more in a single-candidate referendum this fall, all the while grooming his son Gamal for an eventual Pharaonic succession. American taxpayers have bankrolled this regime to the tune of tens of billions of dollars over the years. It is about time that Washington woke up to the explosive powder keg that has been building up under Mr. Mubarak's despotic rule.


But for America to provide useful help to Egyptian democrats, it will have to tread nimbly. A few days ago, Mr. Mubarak's police arrested Ayman Nour, an opposition party leader who had been calling for fully democratic presidential elections. Mr. Nour was charged with forging signatures on the petitions that secured legal status for his party last fall. His real offense was acting like a real opposition party leader in a real democracy. The State Department responded with diplomatically phrased words of protest. Some Egyptian democrats called for stronger American pressure, but most worried that too close an embrace of Mr. Nour by the United States would make it easier for Mr. Mubarak to discredit him in Egyptian eyes.


Washington must go beyond raising its voice for select democrats at opportune moments. It must confront Mr. Mubarak and other regional autocrats with consistent calls for political freedom and open multiparty elections.


Not long ago America was automatically equated with freedom and democracy in the minds of most of the world's oppressed and colonized peoples. Over the years, that reputation has been squandered for shortsighted reasons. This would be a fine moment to begin earning it back.


It seems a lot of people think that the issue of the "kiss of death" -- that any effort by the US to promote democracy will be rejected because of dislike of US policy in the region -- is becoming a major dilemma. This is why the blindly pro-Israeli attitude of the US is ultimately extremely damaging to US interests, especially if you believe that spreading democracy in the Middle East is a national security issue. Ultimately, the neo-cons are utterly incoherent on this one.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.