Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Egypt’s democratic charade

By Saad Eddin Ibrahim
The Globe and Mail
Jan 16, 2006

On Dec. 30, just before dawn, Egypt’s riot police stormed a public square in the Cairo suburb of Mohandeseen, where 3,000 Sudanese refugees had staged a peaceful sit-in for several weeks. In the process of using water canon and live ammunition, some 27 refugees were killed, including 11 children. Eyewitnesses and the media documented the horrifying encounter. This tragedy has renewed many questions about the Mubarak regime’s commitment to democratic opening and the country’s claim to be a role model in Africa and the Arab world.

The refugees were not protesting against the government of Egypt or its people, but against the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which had kept them in limbo for months. Having lost family, homes and means of livelihood in their native homeland because of the ravages of a protracted and brutal civil war, they turned to the UN for help with resettlement.

The UNHCR disclaimed responsibility for them on grounds that the Sudanese civil war had ended with the signing of a peace agreement among the warring parties earlier in 2005. Their own government in Khartoum contended that it would provide for all Sudanese refugees, when and if the international community honoured its many prior pledges for the reconstruction of the south of Sudan. Meanwhile, the world is now distracted, dealing with another civil war that erupted two years ago in Sudan’s western province of Darfur.

By camping out in front of UNHCR headquarters in Cairo, the Sudanese refugees hoped to draw world attention to their predicament. Though initially sympathetic, Egyptian residents around the public square began to complain as the sit-in entered its third month. The government of Egypt promised to deal with the issue as soon as the presidential and parliamentary elections were over. Little did concerned Egyptians anticipate that their government would be so heavy-handed or brutal in its solution. They were shocked and dismayed at this indication of official ineptness and disregard for human life.

Seasoned observers were not so shocked. They noted the Mubarak regime’s established pattern of overreaction. A month earlier, the same riot police killed 18 Egyptians and wounded hundreds during the parliamentary elections; the victims were only trying to exercise their right to vote. On May 22 and July 10, peaceful protesters were badly beaten in the centre of Cairo. When a score of women took refuge near the press syndicate building, plain clothes security thugs pursued them, stripped off their clothing and manhandled them in a deliberate act of humiliation and intimidation. As the footage of these brutalities was aired on Al-Jazeera and other television networks, U.S. President George W. Bush deplored the police violence and called for an investigation. That investigation was recently dropped by the Egyptian government for what it said was lack of evidence.

Hosni Mubarak’s regime has more often than not resorted to brutal methods against protesters and political dissidents. The outspoken political candidate Ayman Nour, 41, is a flagrant case in point. When the member of parliament exposed the regime’s long-term plans for grooming Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father, and then formed a political party a year ago to challenge Mr. Mubarak in the first contested presidential election, Mr. Nour was arrested and charged with fraud. Out on bail, he ran in September’s presidential election, garnering 9 per cent of the vote (compared to Hosni Mubarak’s 89 per cent). At his shameful trial last month, the political activist was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

What is new, however, is that Mr. Mubarak is no longer able to cover up his behaviour. His claim to the West to be a bulwark against terrorism and religious extremism is not enough to justify flagrant violations of human rights. His latest ploy of flirting with democracy has been exposed as a charade. November’s parliamentary elections were judged by international and domestic observers alike to have been seriously flawed. In an unusual public expression of dissent, Egyptian judges issued a damning report to this effect.

Hosni Mubarak’s claim to respect the rule of law was exposed as false by the case of Ayman Nour. His claims of human decency were brutally negated by the massacre of hapless Sudanese refugees. This 25-year-old regime is no longer fit to govern the pivotal nation on the Nile.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist and democracy activist, founded the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies at the American University of Cairo. He spent three years in prison until an Egyptian appellate court, in 2003, overturned his conviction for disseminating information harmful to Egypt.

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