Egypt Muzzles Calls for Democracy

Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service

CAIRO -- The atmosphere in Courtroom 5 was relaxed, even cordial, as Ashraf Ibrahim entered the defendants' cage. While a dozen black-bereted policemen looked on impassively, friends and relatives took turns chatting with the 35-year-old computer programmer, a political activist, who was dressed in a white prison jumpsuit. Some even posed for photographs. Men in grease-stained waiter's jackets navigated the packed room selling soft drinks and snacks, delivering Ibrahim a steaming glass of tea through a small hole gouged out of the steel mesh between the iron bars.

Then the judge and prosecutors entered, and the room seemed to freeze.

Ashraf Ibrahim and four fugitive co-defendants, the chief prosecutor read aloud, were in court this December morning to face charges of plotting to overthrow the government, belonging to a banned communist organization and sending false reports to international organizations -- offenses punishable by up to 15 years' imprisonment under Egypt's harsh state security laws.

After the judge rejected a defense attorney's plea that his client should be freed on bail because he had done nothing more than videotape police brutality at a demonstration, Ibrahim was dispatched back to his cell in Cairo's notorious Mahkoum Tora security prison, where he has been held since April.

In what was widely regarded as one of his most important speeches of 2003, President Bush proclaimed in November that it was time for the United States to support democracy in the Middle East. He said the establishment of a free Iraq would be "a watershed event in the global democratic revolution." And he called upon Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country and the second-biggest recipient of U.S. military and economic aid, to be in the vanguard.

"The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East," Bush declared.

U.S. officials insist they are seeing slow but positive changes in human rights conditions here. But rights advocates, opposition politicians and analysts interviewed here paint a darker portrait: of an authoritarian government that tightens or loosens the screws of repression depending upon how it perceives threats, that is obsessed with its Islamic opposition and feels harassed by human rights activists, and that wields a powerful state security apparatus that operates under far-reaching emergency laws and often deals brutally with opponents.

And they contend that, contrary to Bush's pronouncements, U.S. aid -- nearly $2 billion per year over the past two decades -- has propped up an unpopular government, its army and police, and helped suppress democracy.

Once the most influential Arab nation, Egypt has struggled in recent decades with a stagnant economy, political violence from Islamic militants and the vicissitudes of highly centralized one-man rule. Its president, Hosni Mubarak, is 75 and has showed signs of ill health recently, and he is grooming his son to succeed him.

Opponents are hoping the succession will be an opportunity to transform the government and the economy, and some critics agree that the government has eased its grip on dissent. But state power is quick to assert itself when challenged. Ashraf Ibrahim and his supporters in Egypt's small but vocal human rights community say the real reason he was arrested was because he helped organize raucous demonstrations in March against the war in Iraq that were far larger than anyone had anticipated and had shaken and embarrassed the authorities. "They didn't expect so many people," Ibrahim said in a brief interview before the proceeding began. "That's why they want to punish us now."

In a Big Prison

On Nov. 6, the day Bush gave his speech, authorities returned the bruised body of Saad Sayed Qutb, a 43-year-old accountant, to his family. Qutb, a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, died in a local hospital after three days in custody. The Brotherhood accused authorities of torture, making Qutb the 14th alleged torture victim to die in Egyptian jails in the past two years.

"How could anyone in Egypt believe what Bush said?" asked Essam Erian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sudden disappearances and brutal interrogations are one way the government deals with dissidents, according to activists. Another is to keep them on edge about their legal status. The Brotherhood is the foremost Islamic political movement here and, like all religious groups, it is banned from entering parliamentary politics, although 17 of its followers serve as independents. For years it has operated through a network of mosques, charitable institutions, labor unions and professional associations. Sometimes the authorities crack down on the Brotherhood; other times they encourage its participation.

Erian, a clinical pathologist by trade, frequently appears on television to speak for the movement. He spent five years in prison in the mid-1990s -- a time when the government virtually decapitated the Brotherhood by imprisoning some of its most promising younger leaders -- and said he knows he could be arrested again at any time. "I came out of a small prison, now I'm in a big one," he said.

There are constant reminders of the limits under which Erian lives. He was scheduled last month to attend a conference in Kuwait City, hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on Middle Eastern democracy and the role of Islamic groups. Egypt refused to allow him to leave the country and Kuwait rejected his request for a visa. "I was banned by both countries from speaking about democracy," he said.

The influence of the Brotherhood, founded in the 1920s, can be found throughout the Muslim world. Its leaders insist they are committed to nonviolence and democracy, but the group has long been the breeding ground for more radical factions, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which became a central component of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Egyptian Islamic Jihad waged a holy war against the state in the early 1990s. Militants attacked police stations, banks, hotels and government offices, assassinating scores of policemen and officials. The climax was the massacre of 62 people, most of them foreign tourists, in Luxor in 1997.

The government responded with a harsh crackdown, killing hundreds of fighters and arresting thousands more. Torture was widespread, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Backed by $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the United States, the security forces eventually prevailed. A senior Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the trauma still affects the way the government deals with political dissent.

"What we do not want is a situation where the fundamentalists could come to power," he said. "We are trying to strike a balance between reform and security. The human rights situation is gradually improving, although perhaps not as fast or as far as some people would like."

Hafez Abu Saada has a $40,000 dilemma. The head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights received a grant from the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy in July to help his group monitor rights abuses here and produce its annual report. It is a big chunk of his annual budget of $100,000, but Abu Saada needs approval from the Ministry of Social Affairs before he can touch the money.

Six months have passed with no word. If Abu Saada taps the funds, he and his board of directors could face six months in jail. It's no idle threat: Five years ago Abu Saada was arrested, held for a week and charged with receiving money from foreign sources in order to defame Egypt's international reputation. He was never tried, but the charges could be reinstated at any time, he said.

"One of the goals of the government is to always keep you under pressure," Abu Saada said. "You learn to live with it."

An Egyptian Canary

Groups like Abu Saada's do not have widespread popular support here, but they serve as a sort of canary in the Egyptian mine shaft -- when the atmosphere turns more repressive, they are usually the first to feel it.

In recent years, critics acknowledge, the government has allowed an increased level of public debate and dissent. But as always, there are strings attached. Last year, officials enacted legislation requiring registration of all nongovernmental organizations and giving the Social Affairs Ministry the power to put any group out of business by rejecting its registration.

Two groups -- the New Women's Research Center and the Land Center for Human Rights -- have been rejected. Aida Seif El Dawla, a psychiatrist and human rights activist who helped found the women's center, said the ministry had ruled that the center was a threat to public order because it planned to lobby lawmakers to allow victims of torture or domestic abuse to sue their tormentors. "The public order is obviously very fragile," she said.

In facing a government with such broad powers, it doesn't always help to win in court. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democracy advocate, won a stunning legal victory last year when a judge overturned his conviction and that of the staff of his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies on charges he had embezzled money, received foreign funds without permission and tarnished Egypt's image.

But while the case is finished, the government's campaign against him is not. In recent weeks, Ibrahim has come under a vitriolic attack in the Egyptian press. Newspapers have accused him of conspiring with the Bush administration to undermine Egypt's international image. "Saad Eddin Ibrahim in Washington to incite against Egypt and the Arab World" read one front-page headline.

The newspapers also said Ibrahim -- who holds joint U.S.-Egyptian citizenship -- had received $2 million from U.S. aid funds earmarked for Egypt as a payoff for his betrayal. At least four members of the Ibn Khaldun board have resigned in recent weeks. Some of Ibrahim's old allies in the human rights movement are quietly distancing themselves from his cause, fearing he has grown too close to the United States.

Government officials contend they have no role in the press reports, but Ibrahim said he believes elements in the state security forces are orchestrating a campaign of character assassination. And he fears he may become a target for far worse. When in prison, he met inmates who had been convicted of the attempted assassination of Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, in 1994.

"They told me they had not read a line by Mahfouz but they were incited, told he was against Islam, he was a heretic or a traitor," Ibrahim said. "And now I'm called a traitor. These things cannot be taken lightly."

One newspaper accused Ibrahim of writing Bush's Nov. 6 address on democracy, while another claimed the speech was inspired by Israel and its American supporters in order to undermine Egypt and other Arab states. Anger Over Iraq War

Virtually all of the two dozen independent analysts, government officials, lawyers and journalists interviewed here in December were deeply angry about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, as well as the Bush administration's unflagging support for Israel. Few said they believed Bush truly wants democratic elections here, which would inevitably produce a government far more hostile to U.S. foreign policy than the current one. Several pointed to the U.S. practice of "rendition" -- the surreptitious shipment of an unknown number of suspected Arab terrorists to Egypt and other countries where police routinely practice torture -- as proof of U.S. bad faith on human rights issues.

Egyptian officials, who have always wielded a veto over which private organizations are allowed to receive U.S. aid, are unhappy about an American proposal to earmark $20 million for democratization. Mubarak, at a news conference, insisted that Egypt was the region's only real democratic state. "We do not need any pressure from anyone to adopt democratic principles," he declared.

The first day of the antiwar demonstrations last March was largely peaceful. But things got out of control the next afternoon, when thousands of worshipers poured out of the 1,000-year-old al-Azhar mosque after Friday prayers, chanting slogans and throwing stones and shoes at riot police. The police used long narrow clubs and metal pipes to beat back the crowd. More than 800 people were arrested and hundreds more were beaten, including two opposition lawmakers. Someone set a firetruck ablaze under the 6th of October Bridge, stopping traffic and causing panic on the bridge.

The protests were estimated to be the largest in this country since the bread riots of 1977, and they brought to the surface popular disaffection with the government. Demonstrators chanted against Mubarak and his family, as well as the United States and Israel. Ashraf Ibrahim, who for the past three years had been organizing small but vocal demonstrations on behalf of the Palestinian uprising, said he was stunned by the size of the crowd. He used his video camera to record scenes of police brutality.

Three weeks later, the authorities struck back, raiding Ibrahim's home and confiscating his computer and video camera, and arresting a dozen activists. Ibrahim, who was away at the time, turned himself in when he returned in mid-April. He has been held ever since.

'I Was Only Talking'

At his hearing Dec. 6 in the southern district of Cairo courthouse, Ibrahim was represented by Abu Saada and human rights advocate Ahmed Seif El Islam. Many of the stalwarts of the rights community came to observe, including Seif Dawla and representatives of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as did a handful of Western diplomats, among them a representative of the U.S. Embassy.

Looking at the crowded courtroom from the defendants' cage, Ibrahim expressed gratification -- and amazement that the government had singled him out for punishment.

"I am not a terrorist," he said. "I was only talking." Maybe, he added with a shy smile, "that is why they are afraid of me."