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Bush’s Middle East Problem 

The case of an anti-war protester in Egypt

Thursday, Mar 18 2004
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Photo by Ted Soqui

CAIRO, EGYPT — For three months, American diplomats made the short trip from their Garden City compound to the North Cairo Criminal Court to watch over the man in the cage. Ashraf Ibrahim, who had organized protests against the war in Iraq, stood in the middle of the court’s cage, gripping the steel webbing. The government had charged him and four others, who remained fugitives, with defaming Egypt’s reputation by sending false information to human-rights organizations and with belonging to a group plotting to overthrow the government, charges that landed him in the country’s emergency courts. A conviction could keep him in prison for more than a decade.

Finally, on March 11, his case came to an end. Police with black berets and vintage Kalashnikovs lined the walls and grinned nervously. Family members and observers pushed toward the door after two officers started checking identification. The crowd quickly filled the courtroom’s benches — arranged like pews in a church — until there was nowhere left to sit; then another officer shut the door.

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IRAQ: 52 WEEKS AND COUNTING The war that won’t end: JUDITH LEWIS tests the sometimes-invisible strength of the peace movement. MATTHEW CRAFT, reporting on a case of an anti-war protester in Egypt, reveals a surprising verdict with overtones for Bush’s Middle East policy. IAN WILLIAMS examines the renewed role for the U.N. HOWARD BLUME pages through the Iraqi Constitution in pursuit of liberty. And CHRISTINE PELISEK’s war list: casualties, costs and the extent of Halliburton fraud.

The judge’s chambers opened, an officer barked “court,” and the judge entered. He sat down and immediately began reading the verdict in a whisper.

In the back of the courtroom, I squeezed between my friend Yasser and Clarisa Bencomo, an observer from the New York City offices of Human Rights Watch. Everyone strained to hear the judge, who, within a minute, had arrived at his conclusion: Ibrahim and the other four were innocent on all charges.

A swarm of friends and family hurdled the aisles and rushed to the cage. People jumped onto the benches. One man cried and threw himself at the police. “Let go of me!” he said, before shoving a guard aside and racing out of the courtroom.

Ibrahim was arrested last March during an anti-war demonstration, sanctioned by the government, which swamped Cairo’s already crowded downtown streets. Though widely frustrated with President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians rarely vent such grievances — under emergency law, it’s illegal for five or more people to talk politics. Given the chance, they erupted, setting fires, throwing rocks and chanting against Mubarak. People who were there told me a mob ventured toward the American Embassy and was beaten back. Police arrested hundreds; most were eventually released — but not Ibrahim.

Many considered Ibrahim’s trial a test case, a way to judge whether Mubarak’s recent steps toward reform will lead to any lasting change. Pressure comes at Mubarak from all sides. American diplomats have pushed for Mubarak to loosen up, and Egyptians of every stripe now style themselves reformers, calling for untainted elections, a crackdown on corruption and, especially, an end to emergency law. In place since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, the law allowed Ibrahim, an engineer who videotaped police beating protesters, to be charged as a terrorist. An acquittal in his trial could be the tipping point, some argued, in the slow process of getting the unpopular laws wiped from the books.

When, after a minute, the courtroom settled down, a bulky man hopped onto the last bench near the door and chanted, “Oppression will never crush our beliefs; oppression will never crush our voices.”

Ibrahim hugged himself and shivered as he fielded questions. “How do you feel?” someone asked.

“Absolutely happy,” he said. “This is a victory for Egypt, a victory for human rights.” When he was asked how he was treated in prison, his victory speech turned dark. He said he was tortured by the security services, and a minute after calling the verdict a triumph, he pointed out that he had been jailed since April. “That sends a message that if you’re charged with lies and there’s no evidence, you can still sit in jail for a year.”

“The Egyptian people aren’t able to choose their own government,” he continued. “They’re unable to make their own decision, and we will continue resisting this corrupt government supported by the Americans.”

Yasser had managed to break through the crush and faced Ibrahim. “Wait a minute,” Yasser said. “You’re complaining about the Americans. But all those people in the back are Americans; they were here to support you.”

“They weren’t here for me,” he responded. “They were here for themselves.”

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