Our Man (and Son) in Egypt

by Joseph Mayton

The Progressive magazine, March 2007


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 same amount.

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 the World.

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 in prison.

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, and Israel.

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

North Africa page

Home Page