Egypt told that its license to persecute Islamic activists does not extend to pro-west secularists

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.S. Ahmed

Rabi' al-Awwal 24, 1422 2001-06-16

Occupied Arab World

by M.S. Ahmed (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 8, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1422)

Throughout his rule, president Husni Mubarak has governed Egypt under an emergency decree, using his dictatorial powers to persecute the Islamic groups that have always constituted the most vocal opposition to his regime. Meanwhile his western allies have ignored this persecution, propping up his regime with lavish economic and political support, mainly because of his “moderating influence on the Arab Israeli conflict”, because of their desire to avoid giving indirect backing to Islamic opposition groups, and because of what US secretary of state Colin Powell calls “the US-Egyptian cooperation to combat international terrorism”.

However, the regime, which has got away with rounding up scores of Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) leaders and members in recent months, is reeling from the sudden condemnation and threats from Western governments and media, following the conviction of professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent secular Egyptian, who also happens to be a US citizen.

The 62-year-old professor of sociology at the American university, Cairo, who is also head of the Ibn Khaldun Centre, was sentenced on May 21 by a special court to seven years’ imprisonment. He was found guilty of receiving unauthorized funding from overseas, embezzlement and forgery, and “defaming Egypt’s reputation”. Twenty-seven members of the centre were also found guilty of various charges and received lesser sentences. Before his arrest last year, Ibrahim had accused the regime of rigging the 1995 parliamentary elections, and of intolerance towards the Coptic minority. But above all he had critisised Arab leaders for establishing dynastic rules, hinting that Mubarak was grooming his son to succeed him at a time when the president and his slavish media were denying allegations to that effect. Strong behind-the-scenes pressure from the US and Europe have failed to obtain Ibrahim’s release, but his conviction has led to public and humiliating criticism of Mubarak and his regime, particularly in American and EU media.

A spokesman for the US embassy in Cairo said that American officials were “deeply troubled” by the verdict against a dual national who was prominent in both Arab and American academic circles. Washington also announced that it had made representations at the highest level in the Egyptian government on Ibrahim’s behalf. Britain said two days after the verdict that it was “very concerned”. The Foreign Office added that a formal complaint to Cairo was being prepared by the EU, which had granted Ibrahim $250,000 to fund his activities. According to media reports, the western governments’ mild public statements contrast with the strong pressure brought to bear in private.

But the reaction of the western media, free from diplomatic restraints, has been vociferous in its attacks on Egypt’s president, and hypocritical in its selective defence of ‘democratic values’. The Washington Post, for instance, said in an editorial, republished in the International Herald Tribune on May 24, that while Washington could do little about “such outrages” when they were committed in China or Cuba, it should not accept them from a country which “has grown accustomed” to receiving some $2 billion in US military and economic aid every year. It urged both the US administration and Congress to use this aid to put Cairo in its place.

But the editorial also heaped insult on an “authoritarian president” dependent on Washington to stay in power. It said: “It is hard to guess why Husni Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian president, thought it was worth delivering this slap in the face to a superpower ally that has backed his government, and effectively kept him in power, for 20 years. Perhaps he felt compelled to act after Mr Ibrahim published an article — criticising the trend toward dynastic succession in the Arab world and calling attention to the son, Gamal, whom Mr Mubarak is grooming. Perhaps he figures that the new Bush administration needs his help in the turbulent Middle East, or is realistic enough not to mind whether he respects democratic values.”

The London-based Financial Times also called on western governments to act. In an editorial on May 30, it said: “Western governments should not remain silent. Mr Mubarak’s moderate voice in the Arab-Israeli conflict is needed but this should not justify turning a blind eye to his regime’s abuses.” But the paper did not ask for US aid to be withheld or for the use of the EU’s association agreement with Egypt as a stick. It had said in an earlier comment that this was realistic “because of Cairo’s strategic importance to the West”. The editorial said that Egypt was not the only country in North Africa suppressing human rights — attributing western governments’ silence over this to their claim that “pressure would bolster Islamist opposition groups and destabilise the western-friendly regimes.”

An article in Le Monde went even further. It said that Egyptian intellectuals were under attack from the courts or from “a witch hunt mounted by a loose cabal of government officials, Islamists and so-called nationalists hostile to any normalisation of relations with Israel”. The article, published on May 31, cited professor Ibrahim’s conviction, and a call by “Islamic extremists” for the trial of Nawal el-Saadawi, the feminist writer, for apostasy. It also cited the expulsion from the Egyptian Writers Union, a government-controlled professional association, on May 25 of playwright Ali Salem “for having violated the decisions of the general assembly forbidding normalisation with Israel”. The French daily, instead of acknowledging the success of the Palestinian intifada in mobilising Egyptian public and professional opinion against Israel, blamed Ali Salem’s expulsion on “Islamists and nationalists” conniving with each other against “civil society”.

The hypocrisy of the western governments and media in feigning concern for human rights in Egypt is shown by their shameful failure even to comment on (let alone condemn or call for action against) the recent round-up of Ikhwan leaders and members. Only recently, more than half of them were arrested while they were gathered at a house belonging to one of them in the Asyut District. Those arrested included Dr Muhammad Assayed Habiba, a former member of parliament. And on May 29 — two days before the article in Le Monde — eleven others were arrested at dawn in their homes in Alexandria.

The west’s silence in these cases is anything but surprising. Although the Ikhwan is no longer committed to Islamic Revolution, preferring to work for Islamic government by “peaceful means” within the existing order, even this is too much for the West. They are afraid of any kind of Islamic voice in public affairs; hence their concern when Cairo moves against the secular individuals and organizations they back as counterweights to Islamic groups. And they are in no doubt that Mubarak is on their side, both on the issue of secularism and on their support for Israel.

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