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Bush’s Middle East Problem

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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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.”

 

When I meet people in Cairo, a conversation that starts with “Where are you from?” is often followed by “I hate your President Bush.” You can hear the suspicion of Bush and of the American push for democratic reforms in everyday chatter and read it in the newspapers. The weekly El Osboa recently reported that Bush plans to have passages of the Koran rewritten and — shortly after the American satellite channel Al-Hurra debuted — that Halliburton helped launch a liberal Egyptian newspaper. A cartoon pasted to a wall on Qasr al-Ainy, a busy road near my apartment, shows an Arab man in robes straining to read a paper with the headline “Middle East reform” held by the sinister-looking Uncle Sam. The man leans forward, unaware of Sam slipping a noose around his neck.

In public, Mubarak uses this popular distrust to fend off pressure to reform. Government apologists turn Bush-hatred against those arguing for more democratic reforms, ideas perceived as American-born and thus tainted. They call international human-rights groups “neo-colonialists.” Mubarak’s well-practiced line is that reforms must emerge from “our culture” and take place at their own pace, all in good time. If outsiders dictate the pace, they would push for too many freedoms too fast and Egypt would surely lapse into chaos.

He makes a similar argument to Americans: Turn Egypt into a democracy, and you’ll put the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of a 70-million-strong nursery for terrorists on Israel’s border. Democratic reform, he warned, “would play into the hands of terrorism, which will not be confined to the Middle East but will reach Europe and the United States. If the extremists win, you can forget democracy.”

Yet, faced with discontent at home and pressure from abroad, Mubarak has named a human-rights commission and announced that journalists will no longer be thrown in jail. Was it a hurried attempt to burnish his image before his trip to Bush’s Crawford ranch in April? Or a general’s tactical retreat: Give a patch of ground while warning that democratic change could spread anarchy from Morocco to Pakistan?

Most likely it’s part of his long-running balancing act. People who have worked with Mubarak, the former commander of the Air Force, tell me his first concern is security — whatever it takes to keep the country stable. Faced with an obstacle, Mubarak makes enough short-term moves to “muddle through.”

It makes forecasts especially tricky. The 75-year-old Mubarak has never appointed a vice president, although in the past few years he appeared to be grooming his son Gamal, or “Jimmy,” as his heir. Then, in January, Mubarak announced that Egypt, unlike Syria, was a true republic, implying that the presidency wouldn’t pass from father to son.

But that doesn’t mean the decision will be put in voters’ hands, either. In the past year, reformers have worked up the nerve to call for multiparty presidential elections, although everybody expects to see Mubarak on next November’s referendum, running for his fifth six-year term.

“All this speculation about ‘Who’s next?’ is a waste of analysts’ hours,” says Hisham Kassem, the president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the publisher of The Cairo Times. “Mubarak is a military man who runs his presidency like a war room. The Egyptian people are his enemy, and he believes in taking the enemy by surprise. Only Mubarak knows what Mubarak is doing next. Somebody needs to tell him, ‘What’s in your head is public property.’”

 

When Senator John Kerry visited Cairo a few years ago, he met with Mubarak, Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary general, and Kassem. Kassem’s office has become a necessary stop for anyone wanting to hear an unflinching assessment of the political scene. His English-language weekly reflects its publisher. In the past month, the State Department issued a damning report on human-rights abuses in Egypt, and Human Rights Watch held a press conference to publicize a report detailing the torture of gays in prison. The regular Egyptian press either ignored the reports or treated them skeptically. The Cairo Times covered the Human Rights Watch report and had already run a two-page piece on police torture, complete with a picture of an officer swinging a baton at a man on the ground.

Kassem’s opinions are liberal (free markets and free thoughts) and so stand out from those of others under the reform tent. Ibrahim and his attorneys involved in the human-rights movement lean left. Mubarak, in their view, is too close to the Americans; it’s the $2 billion in annual aid that props him up. They refuse to work with the government, whereas Kassem’s group accepted the government’s invitation to join the national human-rights council. Kassem also vocally welcomes American and European pressure.

Such a stance is guaranteed to draw fire from nationalists. It was Kassem’s new Arabic daily that El Osboa tied to Halliburton. One of his reporters, Charles Levinson, wrote articles on torture in Egyptian prisons that appeared in the Cairo Times and American papers. On a return trip from California, Levinson wasn’t allowed to leave Cairo Airport. State security police dropped him in jail for the night, and the next morning put him on a flight back to the United States.

When complaining about accounts of human-rights abuses or other examples of perceived mistreatment in the American media, government bureaucrats whose job it is to apply a nice gloss on such things unpack the straw man. They attack China. “You can get on the Internet anytime you want, you know, and see anything,” they say. “You can’t do that in China.”

Or, “You can say whatever you want here. Not like in China.”

In fairness, Egypt is no China. And it’s no Saudi Arabia, either. There’s a Parliament. Women walk along the Nile unveiled, vote and stand for election — some are even judges. Internet service is free except for the phone call. You can even go see The Matrix Reloaded once the censor is finished with it.

But elections are still a messy business. And the Interior Ministry’s intelligence bureaucracy has its hands in everything. Egypt, in short, is a country where students from the moneyed classes at the American University of Cairo staged three performances of The Vagina Monologues last month, but they had to answer to the Interior Ministry afterward.

 

In the jubilant atmosphere outside the courtroom, Ibrahim’s family mingled with the defense attorneys and human-rights activists. Levinson was wearing a broad smile, a week after Egypt’s ambassador to the United States apologized for the “misundertanding.” Amid the hugs and back slapping, it was hard to escape the sense that Egypt’s reformers were gathering momentum on the strength of small victories such as these.

Then I met Hossam Bahgat from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, standing off to the side. He called the trial a singular event: The judge was independent; the prosecutors had no evidence; the foreign diplomats had made their presence felt. A few weeks ago, he said, security officials picked up a pair of men selling bumper stickers near the downtown hotels. The bumper stickers read, “Cairo Traffic: red means go, green means stop.” They were charged with defaming Egypt’s reputation and tried in emergency courts. He figured they would wind up in jail, because the trial had already finished last week while the American observers had been in Courtroom 2, keeping an eye on the Ibrahim trial. Nobody was watching over the bumper-sticker salesmen.


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