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by William Fisher

Poll: Arabs Don't Buy Bush Democracy Crusade

(IPS) -- President Bush's "global war on terror" has produced the unintended consequence of bringing the United States ever-closer to some of the world's most repressive regimes.

Egypt provides a classic example. Last week, over the objections of the country's human rights advocates, Egypt extended the 20-year-old "emergency" law that gives the government power to arrest and detain people without charges, and refused to moderate its campaign to further compromise the independence of an already weak judiciary.

Professor Samer Shehata of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University told IPS, "Democracy promotion and cooperation in the war on terrorism are often in conflict with one another and the U.S. has not been willing to push many regimes that it deems crucial in the 'war on terror' on the democracy question.

"The U.S. needs these regimes to provide intelligence on terrorist organizations and in some cases cooperation and coordination in cases involving extra-judicial 'rendition,' not to mention anti and counter-terrorism policy coordination -- and often the price the U.S. pays is not being able to push these regimes on human rights, rule of law, corruption, and democratization," he said.

Following what many believe was a deeply flawed presidential election last year, Egypt's judges demanded that they be allowed to investigate reports of widespread irregularities, violence toward voters and judges supervising the polls, and vote rigging.

The government's response was to strip six of the magistrates of their immunity from police questioning and thus open the door to criminal charges of defamation and insult.

Human rights groups wrote Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif that they were "concerned for a number of human rights violations that took place with a renewed strength in the last months in Egypt, and, in particular, for the repeated limitations to freedom of expression and opinion, whose victims were different groups of the Egyptian civil society."

The fate of the judges remains in limbo.

Egypt first adopted its Emergency Law in 1981 in response to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. At its height it was used to detain more than 30,000 prisoners indefinitely without charge.

President Hosni Mubarak has had the law renewed every three years since. Today human rights groups estimate that there are approximately 15,000 uncharged prisoners in Egypt's jails.

The law expressly allows authorities to hold individuals for up to six months without being charged or tried. But in practice, legal experts said, the government goes through the motions of technically releasing prisoners after six months, and then re-arresting them, without ever having actually let them go.

In effect, the law is the fire blanket the government has thrown over all dissent, including press freedom.

During his presidential campaign -- the first in the country's history that allowed multiple candidates -- President Mubarak vowed repeatedly to repeal the state of emergency in favor of a new anti-terrorism law. He received the enthusiastic support of human rights groups, journalists, lawyers and other professional organizations, and even members of the political opposition.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners also encouraged the government to consider the demands of the Egyptian Press Syndicate and to examine journalists' demands for the reform of laws governing the press.

In particular, the groups expressed concern about the clauses on defamation, "so as to decriminalize the press related offenses in order to guarantee freedom of expression and democracy in the country."

Two journalists were recently sentenced to a year in prison and fines for "defamation," and hundreds of similar cases are reportedly now before the courts.

The Egyptian president's response was to push a two-year extension of the emergency law through Parliament. The two-year extension was widely supported by the majority of the members of parliament who belong to Mubarak's governing National Democratic Party, which voted 237 to 91 in favor.

The largest opposition block in Parliament includes 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were elected as independents last year. They stood in the parliamentary chamber last Sunday wearing black sashes over their shoulders that called for an end to the emergency law. The once militant Brotherhood, while still officially banned, has become Egypt's leading voice of political Islam.

"We will never use the emergency law against the Egyptian people," Nazif said to the crowded parliamentary chamber. "We will use it only to protect the citizens and face the terror cells that did not quell until now."

The authorities promptly arrested several dozen young men from political opposition groups who had been displaying signs reading, "No for emergency law," and "Together against extension of the emergency law."

While the U.S. State Department expressed disappointment that the presidential and subsequent parliamentary elections were not as free and fair as hoped for, Bush has praised Egypt for its staunch support for the "global war on terror."

He has expressed similar sentiments regarding other countries that have long histories as human rights violators but support his anti-terror campaign. These include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Libya, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Yemen.

These countries consistently receive negative assessments in the U.S. State Department's annual review of human rights practices around the world.

Neil Hicks, director of International Programs for Human Rights First, told IPS, "The U.S. is on shaky ground when confronted by governments that claim exceptional powers in the face of the threat of terrorism since it has claimed the same license for itself.

"U.S. promotion of human rights is often strong on the particular, and Egypt is a good example of a country where there have been forceful interventions on behalf of particular prisoners, and specific human rights concerns, but it is weak in its comments on the broader general context."

"The Emergency Law has undermined human rights and democratic progress in Egypt for decades," he said. "The U.S. government's lack of standing to challenge this general approach undermines its ability to promote human rights in Egypt and elsewhere."

Mary Shaw of Amnesty International notes that, "For years, Amnesty International has reported on the extensive human rights abuses by Egypt and other countries that President Bush praises as allies in the 'war on terror.'

"And, in recent years, Amnesty has had to report on similar egregious abuses, such as torture and indefinite detentions, by the U.S. as well. Democracy and true freedom cannot thrive as long as these practices continue," she told IPS.

"The war on terror must not be used as an excuse to deny human rights or overlook abuses. Otherwise, those who wage war on terror will have won the battle against freedom. The war on terror can only be won through full respect for the human rights of all."

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Albion Monitor   May 5, 2006   (

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