Our Man (and Son) in Egypt
by Joseph Mayton
The Progressive magazine, March
President Bush likes to talk about democracies
budding all over the Middle East, and he often includes Egypt
as an example. Yet Egypt under Hosni Mubarak is anything but.
It lacks freedom of the press and freedom of speech. The police
are increasingly cracking down on peaceful demonstrations. And
Mubarak has anointed his son Gamal as heir apparent. When Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice visited Egypt on June 20, 2005, she
said the country was "taking some steps forward and that
needs to be encouraged and applauded."
In 2004, Mubarak promised to do away with
prison sentences for libel. "Nobody in Egypt will be imprisoned
again for their opinions," Press Syndicate chairman Gala!
Aref said at the time. But Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent
weekly Al Dustour, and his colleague Sahar Zaki are evidence that
this promise hasn't been kept. They were sentenced to one year
in prison for an April article that described a lawsuit against
Mubarak and his family. (They are free pending appeal.) The suit
charged the president, his wife, Suzanne, and Gamal with "wasting
the government's resources," "squandering foreign aid,"
and turning "Egypt into a monarchy." The two journalists
were also fined $1,750. The lawyer who filed the lawsuit, Saied
Abdallah, received an identical sentence and was also fined the
Two other journalists have been sentenced
on unrelated charges in the past year, and a number of prodemocracy
bloggers have also been detained without charge or trial.
"It is clear journalists are getting
cracked down upon. Old scores are being settled by the government,"
says Hugh Miles, author of Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged
Protests are routinely dispersed with
violence. Last May, security forces in Cairo brutally assaulted
people demonstrating to support reformist judges. Dozens of the
protesters were severely injured and hundreds were arrested, according
to Human Rights Watch.
The Egyptian government also has a homophobic
streak. In the most infamous example, fifty-two gay men were picked
up in 2001 from a Nile boat restaurant in Cairo. Twenty-one of
them were convicted, with sentences ranging from one to five years
Even elected officials are targets. The
nephew of Anwar Al Sadat, Egypt's president who was assassinated
in 1981, was recently sentenced to one year in prison. Talaat
Sadat, fifty-two, a member of the Al Ahrar party who sits in the
parliament, was jailed for implicating the army in his uncle's
assassination. The lawmaker was accused of "spreading false
rumors" and "insulting the armed forces and the republican
guard." He also suggested that Mubarak might have been involved
in the assassination. Since Talaat Sadat was tried in a military
court, no appeal is allowed.
What is shocking to many Egyptian activists
is the Bush Administration's lack of commitment toward democratic
reforms in the country.
In Rice's attempted condemnation of Sadat's
arrest by Cairo, during a recent trip to the capital in October
of 2006, she added that it must be remembered that Egypt is vital
to the interests of peace in the region and democratic reform.
"The process of democratization has
its ups and downs," Rice said. "But the United States
will continue to speak about the importance of democracy, a great
nation like Egypt leading the move to democracy in this region."
For his part, President Bush welcomed
Gamal to the White House in May of last year in what was meant
to be a secret visit, according to The Washington Post. Gamal
also met with Dick Cheney, Rice, and National Security Adviser
Stephen Hadley. "It is unusual for a private foreign citizen
with no official portfolio to receive so much high-level attention,"
says the Post.
"This is the beginning of Egypt moving
toward hereditary rule, with Gamal taking over when his father
steps down," says George Ishaq, leader of the opposition
Kefaya (Enough!) movement. Bush and Rice "keep quiet when
they could be loud. All they do is tell Mubarak how great he is
and what an amazing job he is doing to democratize the country."
"The Bush Administration is being
half-hearted in its actions," argues Saad Eddin Ibrahim,
professor at the American University in Cairo and a leading human
rights and democracy advocate who was imprisoned for his outspokenness.
The United States gives Egypt almost $2
billion in aid per year, traditionally the second largest recipient
behind only Israel. Cairo is a key ally for the United States
in Bush's war on terror, as well as a mediator among Hamas, Hezbollah,
These concerns are uppermost in Washington,
despite the high-minded rhetoric.
"Until the United States acts like
it cares about real democratic change," Ibrahim says, "Egypt
will continue to be used as a country for their purposes without
any possibility for an open system."
When Rice returned to Egypt on January
15 of this year, she could have used her pulpit to tell the Egyptian
government that it was not delivering on its democratic promises.
Instead, she acted as though it wasn't even an issue.
"I especially want to thank President
Mubarak for receiving me and for spending so much time with me
to talk about the issues of common interest here in the Middle
East," she said. "Obviously, the relationship with Egypt
is an important strategic relationship-one that we value greatly.".
Joseph Mayton is a freelance journalist
based in Cairo and Beirut