and Human Rights
New York Times Op-Ed
December 10, 2003
Last month, in a
welcome surprise, Egypt freed hundreds of political prisoners.
Unfortunately, thousands remain behind bars. One of them, Ashraf
Ibrahim, an engineer who opposed the American-led war in Iraq,
is being tried in one of Egypt's infamous emergency security courts.
Among the charges is "sending false information to foreign
human rights organizations." The case is a sham and, along
with other discouraging developments, indicates that Egypt has
not ended its troubling half-step forward, half-step back approach
to human rights.
When President Bush
recently called for political reform in the Middle East, he said
Egypt had shown the way toward peace and now should lead the way
to democracy. He was right. Today's planned meeting in Geneva
between President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Israel's foreign
minister, Silvan Shalom, is most welcome. But to get changes in
Egypt and elsewhere means a shift in American policy away from
backing autocrats who do our bidding and ignoring abuses in their
nations. A telling example came last week when Secretary of State
Colin Powell visited North Africa and offered rewards but little
criticism for some fairly repressive governments. What is needed
is a vigorous
defense of human rights, support for civil society and stepped-up
programs like academic exchanges.
committed $100 million in fiscal 2003 to such reforms in the region,
and that step is a good thing, if still too little. Senator Patrick
Leahy, a Vermont
Democrat, also has the right idea. In the foreign appropriations
bill, he included $1 million earmarked for organizations in Egypt
like the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which promotes
voting reform. The center is run by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was
released from prison early this year after he had been railroaded
by the same kind of security court that Ashraf Ibrahim faces.
His sentence was overturned by a higher court. Ashraf Ibrahim's
verdict can be overturned only by the president.
This is not encouraging
because it is Mr. Mubarak's government that is requiring new registration
of nongovernmental organizations and has pointedly not registered
several on the political left. It promised to abolish the emergency
security courts but dismantled only one of the three levels. It
promised to set up a human rights council but has not done so.
Finally, Mr. Mubarak, who is 75 and has been in power for two
decades, has done nothing about promoting a modern succession.
Instead, he seems intent on installing his son Gamal in power.
The United States, which gives Cairo $2 billion a year, has done
far too little to counter any of this.