"Democracy in the Middle East" is the oft-repeated mantra of the United States government as well as Israel. Democracy will bring peace, prosperity and all good things. President Bush insists he wants democracy for the Palestinians as a condition of peace. Likewise, human rights, a related issue, is the mantra of radical critics of Israel. How indeed, can anyone be against human rights?
Despite the bipartisan advocacy, there is nonetheless precious little democracy and not much of human rights in our region. For this, we can blame hypocrisy and expediency. Politics and statesmanship could not exist without a bit of hypocrisy, However, nowhere is hypocrisy more blatantly visible than it is in the case of democracy and human rights advocacy, whether it is applied to the Palestinian Authority, to Israel, to Syria, to Saudi Arabia, to Iraq, Iran, to Egypt or any of the other regimes in the Middle East.
The issue was highlighted the recent conviction of Egyptian human rights activist Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim and members of the staff of his Ibn Khaldun Center. Professor Ibrahim, an American and Egyptian citizen, aged 63 and ill, was convicted for the "crime" of "tarnishing the image of Egypt" because the foundation had exposed election fraud and detailed persecution of minorities. Professor Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years in jail. Surely, if there was such a law in Israel or the United States then many of us would be in jail for criticizing faults in our country. But the critics are silent about Saad Eddin.
The judge in Professor Ibrahim's case took only a brief time to review the evidence, and ignored proofs by the defense that charges of fraud had been fabricated. It is a case that is paradigmatic of the oppressive situation. The case is illustrative of the problems faced by Arab political activism that were pointed out recently by Dr. Mohamed Mosaad.
In Amman, Rami G Khouri wrote:
This is a microcosm of the wider battle that continues to define most of the
contemporary Arab World, battle which pits the vulnerable forces of enlightened
nationalism and democratic activism against the vast power of governments that
behave in an increasingly autocratic manner."
"... Dr Ibrahim and his colleagues are fine Egyptians and Arabs, aspiring members of a global movement for democratic pluralism and for national political integrity and dignity. They pay a heavy price for their determination to build strong, free, tolerant and civil political cultures throughout the Arab World. Unfortunately, they will not be publicly supported by many people in the Arab World, because the same chilling forces that press down upon them in prison today also menace, intimidate, and largely silence their like-minded Arab colleagues."
"... Here is a very good, live example of why so many ordinary Arabs and Muslims in this region criticize the United States: it is because significant American financial and political support maintains an Arab status quo that includes sad misconduct such as we witness now in Egypt and other Arab states."
Many Arabs ask: Why does the US suddenly use its power to promote better governance only in Palestine, while using its money to support and maintain erratic governance systems in other parts of the Arab World?"
Why indeed? Because, the US has always been willing to tolerate repressive regimes under the doctrine "He's an SOB, but he's our SOB." To be sure, the human rights situation in Syria, for example, is much worse. However, Egypt, unlike Syria, is the recipient of $2 billion annually in American aid. The US made pro-forma protests about the Ibn Khaldun case, but the issue was not raised with President Hosni Mubarak during his recent visit to Washington. Presumably, it would be "bad manners" for President Bush or the State Department to raise such "embarrassing" issues and ruin the atmosphere at state dinners.
Logically, the Palestinian partisans who agonize over Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians should be equally aghast at torture and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment in Egypt. There is a danger that the US will foist such a regime on them too. Indeed, Hosni Mubarrak, President of Egypt is one of the advocates and godfathers of Palestinian reform. He is going to teach the Palestinians how to be democratic and efficient.
The Israeli peace activists who are so worried about torture in Israel should be worried about torture in Egypt as well. The right wing Zionists who tell us about Saudi Arabian rights violations and corruption and tyranny in the Palestine National authority should be up in arms at the imprisonment of Professor Ibrahim and his colleagues. However, they are all silent. The human rights issue in Egypt is of no value to "anyone who matters." It is an embarrassment. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Syria, Egypt is not a convenient target for right-wing Zionist advocates or for conservative anti-terrorism partisans. In the US at least, the outrage elicited editorials in the New York Times and Washington Post. In Israel, the trial and conviction were scarcely mentioned in the media.
The anti-terror advocates are quite satisfied with Egyptian civil rights laws, since the same vague laws and arbitrary justice are used to repress Islamic fundamentalists. This past week 16 men were sentenced in a military court to 3 to 5 years in jail for the crime of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. No terrorist acts were alleged against them. Amnesty International has detailed cases of torture time and again, but this sort of routine repression is scarcely noted in the West.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an American and friend of peace and has defended Anwar Sadat's image in Egypt. That guarantees that there will be no petitions by Hollywood anti-Zionist and anti-US glitterati and intellectuals on his behalf. The humanitarian compassion that is extended to suicide bombers is not sufficient to encompass those with the "wrong" political opinions. Like the victims of Stalin, he has become a non-person to the left. The Israeli peace movement would not want to embarrass Egypt or raise unpleasant subjects. The truth is not convenient for them either.
Human rights in Arab countries are certainly of value to the peoples of those countries. Compassion must be extended not only to victims of suicide bombings and people suffering under the occupation, but to people rotting in jails for the crime of expressing their opinions. If we extend the hand of friendship and peace, we must help our neighbors. We must speak for those who are afraid to speak, those who have good reason for fear.
However, policy is never based on morality. We need to examine the practical implications of the "Our SOB" policy and the "benefits" reaped thereby. In Iran, the US and Israel looked the other way while the Shah carried on a brutal repression of his people. The day of reckoning came though, and the Shah was overthrown. Iranians blamed the US as well as Israel, and rightly so, for cooperating with their oppressor. Unfortunately, as frequently happens, the regime that replaced the Shah was even worse for the people of Iraq than the tyranny that preceded it.
In Egypt, as in Iran, a corrupt and repressive regime that cannot be changed democratically will be changed by violence. When the day of reckoning comes in Egypt, the US and Israel will be blamed for looking the other way while the Egyptian government trampled the rights of minorities, of women, of dissenters and homosexuals, torturing suspects and paying pious lip service to UN conventions on human rights. The present Egyptian government will have dined long and well, and the West and Israel will now be presented with the bill.
Judging from the example of Egypt, the US and Israeli governments would be ŭsatisfied to replace the current Palestinian leadership with one that is equally corrupt ŭand tyrannical, but pro-West and willing to make peace with Israel. ŭIn Iraq and Iran, the US may hold out the prospect of similar governments. Of course, such regimes cannot last. Usually "our SOB" governments are replaced by demagogues who feed off the accumulated hatred of the people by attacking the Western powers that were responsible for their misery. Moral bankruptcy and complacency eventually exact a terrible price. Those in the West who are silent now will have only themselves to thank for the wave of hate that will ensue.
Everyone who is concerned about those magic words "peace and freedom" must help, but it is probable that only the United States, the great patron of Egypt, can have any material influence. Please write to President Bush and to American officials. Explain to them that they cannot be silent about Saad Eddin Ibrahim and about human rights in Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East. They cannot, once again, sacrifice democratic rule and the rights of others in the Middle East to expediency, and then expect Arabs to cooperate in "reforming" the Palestinian authority or bringing "democracy" to Iraq.
Sign the APHRA petition to
amnesty Saad-Eddin Ibrahim:
To: The Egyptian Authorities
The Arab Program for Human Rights Activists has been observing with concerns the news about the deterioration of the health of Dr. Saad El-Din Ibrahim, the Egyptian Prominent Activist and the Director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Developmental Studies, at the Turah Prison, where he spends the period of seven years of imprisonment on the background of the case 2561/2000, known in the media as the Ibn Khaldun case.
Dr. Ibrahims ankle was broken on the 25th of September after he lost his balance and fell over the floor. It is worth noting that Dr. Ibrahim had previously experienced several stokes because of his heart problems, which necessitate a special health care for his critical conditions.
Thus the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists calls upon the authorities to offer Dr. Saad El-Din Ibrahim a health amnesty in accordance with the Egyptian Laws and the International agreements that Egypt is bound to respect.
As well, the Arab and International concerned institutions are encouraged to sign this petition to be presented to the Egyptian authorities towards the release of Dr. Ibrahim.
CLICK TO SIGN THE APHRA HEALTH AMNESTY PETITION FOR SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM
Emails of US Officials:
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