GWOT (Global War On Terror): Egypt
by Negar Azimi
www.thenation.com/, December 31,
There's a story that when the news arrived
that airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center, Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak turned to one of his aides and said, "My
job just got a little bit easier." Throughout the 1980s and
'90s Egypt fought its own nasty, brutish "war on terror."
As militant groups--Gama'a Islamiya and Islamic Jihad most prominent
among them--orchestrated attacks on government officials, members
of the country's Coptic minority and even foreign tourists, thousands
of people were locked up incommunicado in crackdowns across the
country. Most of the detained were tortured; others simply disappeared.
At the height of the dirty war, some 30,000 suspected militants--or
at least those unlucky enough to be regarded as such--had been
whisked away to Egypt's famously inhospitable prisons. Enter 9/11
and the vaguely defined "war on terror" it inspired.
Here was the perfect opportunity for Mubarak--by then a semibionic
man entering his third decade of rule--to summon up his trusty
narrative about fighting terror at all costs, especially in justifying
his exceptional powers, not to mention his government's growing
crackdowns on its own citizens.
Suddenly the sort of arbitrary detention,
trials on flimsy evidence, torture and trampling of freedom of
expression and assembly that had long been de rigueur in Egypt
found a home under the banner of a global war on terror. When
the Americans were in need of an ally in executing their extraordinary-rendition
program, Egypt handily stepped up to the plate--quickly becoming
one of the favored recipients of the unlucky Abu Omars of the
world. Mubarak, in the meantime, continued to cooperate with the
United States on security issues and maintained Egypt's fraught
diplomatic ties with Israel. The country was, in turn, ensured
its sustained bounty of military aid ($1.3 billion for 2008 alone)--and
a blind eye was cast on its dismal human rights record.
Today, Mubarak's squeeze on civil liberties
seems only to be growing tighter. The country's very own Patriot
Act, in the form of an "emergency law" (this is the
sort of emergency that knows no end; Egyptians have lived under
its aegis continuously since 1981), was renewed in 2006 despite
Mubarak's repeated promises to do away with it. A series of thirty-four
cumbersome constitutional amendments hastily pushed through in
March 2006 further cut into civil liberties. Among them, Article
179 places unprecedented restrictions on the right to privacy
and due process, and gives the government sanction to use exceptional
courts in trying terrorism suspects. While Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's
smooth-talking ambassador to the United States, has indicated
that a new terrorism bill will "provide for the necessary
checks and safeguards on the use of executive power in fighting
terrorism," the law is more than likely to be the same old
emergency law in a new guise. Tellingly, the USA Patriot Act and
Britain's Anti-Terrorism Law have been cited in Egyptian parliamentary
discussions surrounding the bill. They have theirs, too--or so
the logic ran.
When bombs went off in Egypt's stark Sinai
Peninsula in 2004, 2005 and again in 2006, the state strained
to frame the attacks as acts of foreign machination, even though
most signs pointed to the operations being homegrown (Sinai's
population has long been marginalized by the state, and the territory
is thickly littered with gripes). In the bombings' wake, thousands
have been arrested, and thus far three men have been sentenced
to death for the 2004 bombings at the Red Sea resort town of Taba.
Local human rights activists have pointed to questionable evidence,
irregular trial proceedings and allegations of torture in eliciting
"confessions" from the three. Even more recently, there
have been indications that the state security forces may have
gone as far as to fabricate incidents of terrorism to justify
arrests. According to a new Human Rights Watch report, authorities
have used trumped-up terrorism charges to clamp down on suspected
Islamists, including resorting to arbitrary detention and torture
to elicit false confessions in one 2006 case involving twenty-two
detainees, referred to as the Victorious Sect.
And in recent months, the state has further
turned up the heat on its enemies and civil society--particularly
with the question of succession uncomfortably lingering (who will
succeed the 79-year-old Mubarak?) and indications of growing opposition
to Mubarak's rule. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken the lion's
share of the pressure, with its highest-ranking leaders in and
out of prison, while thirty-three members face trial in a military
tribunal for membership in a banned organization and allegedly
providing students with weapons and military training. Increasingly,
the state has been monitoring the Brotherhood's financial doings.
The state-run press frequently intimates that it is linked to
international terrorist networks.
Torture continues to be rampant--of alleged
Islamists, of democracy and labor activists, of bloggers and journalists.
Authorities have shut down two NGOs in recent months, one that
worked on torture cases and another on labor rights. The former,
the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, had been involved
in the first-ever lawsuit against a state security officer for
torture. And at least ten journalists have been sentenced for
various publishing offenses in the past months. Egyptian civil
society has plainly seen better times.
Where are Egypt's American patrons, who
for one brief moment called for reform, having occasionally leveraged
their power in pushing for modest, if not merely symbolic, political
openings? In a 2005 interview with ABC News on the eve of the
country's first multiparty presidential election, Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice announced that Mubarak had "opened
the door" to reform. But this past June, when George W. Bush
voiced his concern for the fate of Ayman Nour, an opposition leader
locked up on politically motivated charges, Egyptian foreign minister
Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused the American leader of "unacceptable"
meddling in his country's affairs. The token gesture had been
made, and it was back to business as usual. A Congressional foreign
aid bill that would withhold $200 million in US military funds
for Egypt--based on its human rights abuses as well as its failure
to monitor weapons-smuggling into Gaza effectively--has shown
little momentum since it passed the House this past summer.
And then came the news, in late July,
that the United States had engineered a ten-year, multibillion-dollar
arms package for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Israel and Egypt.
Ostensibly designed to counter growing Iranian influence in the
region, the generous deal was described by the Secretary of State
as part of a "renewed commitment to the security of our key
strategic partners in the region." It seemed that the business
of the "global war on terror" and, by extension, of
cultivating friendly autocratic regimes had once again trumped
reform. Egypt's door, once showing signs of cracking open, had
slammed firmly shut. Somewhere, Hosni Mubarak was smiling.
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