[OPE-L:6860] assaults on civil liberties in us has effects in egypt

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Tue Apr 02 2002 - 14:44:37 EST

San Francisco Chronicle - Saturday, March 30, 2002

Egyptian fears response to terrorism is crushing civil liberties

By Ashraf Khalil, Chronicle Foreign Service

Cairo -- When democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim emerged from prison last
month after serving 10 months of a seven-year sentence for defaming Egypt's
image, he found a world vastly changed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"I tremble at what is happening in the United States and in some of the
Western countries as far as civil liberties are concerned," said the American
University in Cairo sociology professor, who has been freed pending an appeal
of his case.

He said repressive regimes in the Middle East were already using the new
Western attitudes as a license to clamp down on dissent.

In Egypt, the nation's military trial system for Muslim activists is working
at full speed. There are two different groups of Islamists being tried in
alternating sessions at a military base outside Cairo and another two groups
in jail waiting their turn.

Ibrahim has been one of Egypt's most high-profile campaigners for democracy
and human rights, and many observers saw his arrest in the summer of 2000 and
his harsh sentence -- seven years at hard labor -- as a warning shot by the
government to keep a tight lid on dissent.

Ibrahim, who holds dual U.S.-Egyptian citizenship, was sentenced last May for
accepting unauthorized foreign funding for his Ibn Khaldoun Center for
Developmental Studies, for embezzlement and for defaming Egypt's image --
charges that Western diplomats and human rights groups denounced as a

Ibrahim's center had monitored elections in 1995 and publicized vote
irregularities that favored President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic
party. It was gearing up to monitor a new round of elections when he was

The targeting of the high-profile, internationally known Ibrahim served
notice to other human rights activists that nobody was untouchable. The use
of a military decree against unauthorized foreign funding made organizations
fearful of accepting the overseas grants upon which they depended.

"I know my case had a dampening effect (on activists)," Ibrahim said.

And, as he sees it, some aspects of the U.S.-led fight against terrorism have
made his job harder.

The decision by the United States to try terrorism suspects in military
tribunals, for instance, is seen as a vindication of Egypt's policy of
bringing terrorism suspects and members of Muslim activist organizations
before military courts -- a system that had been widely criticized in the
West before Sept. 11.

In a December media interview, Mubarak cited the U.S. decision and a harsh
new British anti-terrorism package as proof "that we were right from the
beginning in using all means (in response to) these great crimes that
threaten the security of society."

Sept. 11, Mubarak said, "created a new concept of democracy that differs from
the concept that the Western state defended before these events, especially
in regard to the freedom of the individual."

Ibrahim says of the new political climate: "I'm an eternal optimist, and I've
been looking for signs to fuel my optimism. So far, I haven't seen any."

International observers agree. Joe Stork, Washington director of the Middle
East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said Ibrahim's trial
"was intended to silence (him), punish those who dared to be his associates
and intimidate any other Egyptians who might think about criticizing policies
in politically sensitive areas."

The government says it must keep a lid on dissent in order to maintain
stability in a country torn by the demands of secularists, Islamic
fundamentalists and Coptic Christians.

But observers say the shortage of outlets for peaceful dissent plays into the
hands of extremist groups like al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant,
Ayman al-Zawahiri, was the leader of Egyptian jihad, and Mohamed Atta, the
leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was also an Egyptian.

Ibrahim speculates that he got into hot water not only because of his
election-monitoring campaigns but also as a result of his studies of Muslim-
Christian tensions and a now-infamous article in a Saudi magazine about the
royal tendencies of Middle Eastern republics. The article, in which Ibrahim
joked about the chances that Mubarak would appoint his son as his successor
in the manner of late Syrian President Hafez Assad, was published days before
his arrest and may have been the last straw.

"As I was going along in the last 10 years, I was alienating one influential
actor after another," he said.

Now, with some in the West calling for a reformation in Muslim thought,
Ibrahim hopes he can play a key role: "The expectation is that I will be
back, resuming all my activities. And now that I have an even higher moral
ground to stand on, I will take a leadership role."

Of his 10-month stint in Tura Prison, Ibrahim bears surprisingly gentle
memories. He speaks of the "good heartedness" of not only his fellow inmates
but of prison guards and officials. When the country's highest appeals court
granted his request for a retrial, Ibrahim's fellow prisoners helped him

"At 2 o'clock, I heard cheers through the whole ward," Ibrahim said. "That
cheer used to only come when Egypt was playing soccer and scoring."

Ibrahim says he is still adjusting to life on the outside. "I feel Twilight
Zoned, but I feel happy to be free, to smell freedom, to walk in the street,
to see people."

His delight at his newfound freedom is tempered by a degenerative nerve
condition that leaves him walking with difficulty and by anxiety about his
retrial, which is set to begin April 27.

Still, he cannot resist a little campaigning for issues close to his heart,
such as the need for true democratic development in most Middle Eastern

"We are the last region to catch up with the third wave of democracy, and we
have to do more," Ibrahim said. "Otherwise, we will be condemned to
backwardness for hundreds of years. We cannot compete in the world in the
21st century without being democrats, without allowing the imaginative and
creative power of our people to come out."

[Attachment of type text/html removed.]

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Thu May 02 2002 - 00:00:08 EDT