A political tightrope




The immediate needs of the government are the biggest factor dictating its policy

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 11 May 1999

The gulf between Egypt’s political theory and institutional practice is exposed most starkly over issues in which the government has either deliberately or by default sought to maintain a large degree of uncertainty, as it juggles with political, security and cultural concerns.

Pressure for political reform, and hopes for an end to the political stranglehold of the ruling National Democratic Party, have mounted with the advance of economic reform. Among academics, the two are seen to go hand in hand.. However, the connection is not so clear when seen from the perspective of those less closely involved in the economic liberalisation process. Egypt’s{A preoccupation with Islamic fundamentalism has been the watermark by which most other political decisions have been made, from aspects of foreign policy to the drawing up of university reading lists.

The direct and indirect power of the Islamist trend has been pervasive in deliberations over issues as diverse as organ transplants and the freedom of students to read the classics of Arabic literature.

Equally pervasive has been a growing conservatism within the establishment itself. Despite associating with the forces confronting Islamism, the establishment – in the form of ministers, influential journalists, academic pressure groups and others – has clearly been influenced by the moral crusade of the Islamists. This has manifested itself in a conservative backlash, to which the government has attempted to give succour while trying to contain it.

Currently, there are estimated to be up to 60 books poised for banning or already proscribed from the bookshop and course texts of the American University in Cairo (AUC), on the basis that they offend cultural sensibilities. The university is the preserve of those who can afford the high fees. A tiny minority of students, asked to read texts which have been on the AUC curriculum for decades, have led the invariably successful campaigns to have them banned by the ministry of higher education.

The government has allowed the banning of these books at AUC, despite many being freely available and widely taught at Cairo University. The politics of the ban, coupled with a reactionary trend within Egyptian society, has led some to conclude that Egypt’s love-hate relationship with the US lies behind this defiance of the teaching practices in what is after all the “American” university. AUC itself has capitulated at every stage, citing the need to respect local sensibilities – sensibilities which it has taken 20 or more years of exposure to these books to offend.

The selective use of censorship has, as with the campaign against AUC, been directed at foreign influence in the media. Several times in 1998 the government attempted to cripple and then to halt publication of the Cairo Times. The newspaper, known for its frank and outspoken reportage of the shortcomings of the state, is published by an Egyptian but staffed by both foreigners and Egyptians. It has been refused a licence to register in Egypt, is officially based in Cyprus and prints in one of Egypt’s free zones.

Pressure on the Cairo Times mounted at the same time as the courts were hearing a libel case brought by Hassan al-Alfi, the former interior minister, who had been accused of corruption by the opposition newspaper, al-Shaab. The newspaper lost the case and its editor went to prison, though he was later freed.

The condition of civil liberties in Egypt is increasingly subject to the immediate political needs of the government, as it seeks to maintain stability and control through the flawed and inadequate institutions at its disposal.

Chief among its fears is that the security forces, upon whom it has relied to fight the rise of Islamic militancy for almost a decade, will suffer severe problems of morale if they are made to answer for the routine and unpunished abuses of human rights of which they are regularly accused.

The police handling of an investigation into the murder of two Coptic Christians in the largely Coptic Christian upper Egyptian town of al-Khosheh in August 1998, revealed how entrenched this routine of abuse and the government’s apparently nonchalant attitude towards it, have become.

Up to 1,200 Copts, among them children and old people, were arrested, several tortured and all terrorised by the police investigation. A report by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) concluded that the police were keen to find a Copt guilty of the murder, because to have charged a Moslem may have inflamed sectarian violence.

EOHR concluded that the police action was not anti-Christian, but that it simply exposed the excesses to which the police routinely go, and called for government action. But the government responded by arresting Hafez Abu Saeda, EOHR secretary-general, who was jailed, had his head shaved, and the organisation accused of receiving foreign funds to finance the report as a way of discrediting Egypt.

The latter accusation was made in a barely substantiated report in a down-market newspaper with close links to the interior ministry. Despite the dubious nature of the claims, the EOHR was forced to return funds it had received from the British embassy for an entirely unconnected project. Mr Abu Saeda was then released, and attended a human rights conference in Paris, his shaved head baring testimony to the Egyptian government’s human rights record.

Such incidents essentially reflect the impunity of the security services, to which the rest of the government is beholden for its ultimately¬† successful campaign against the Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Egypt’s largest Islamist militant organisation. On March 25, the Gama’a announced a unilateral ceasefire, which appears to have been sincere. A month later, the government released up to 1,000 Islamist prisoners.

With the easing of pressure from Islamists, the government may find reduced public tolerance of human rights abuses practised in the name of security. The treatment of Islamist prisoners has improved since the appointment in 1997 of Habib al-Adly, the interior minister, says the Gama’a al-Islamiyya’s lawyer.

However, the issue of human rights has yet to rise up the agenda within the broader context of civil liberties. The government is both reactive and proactive. Pressured by reactionaries who for different ends, flaunt the threat of the Islamist bogeyman, the government is beholden to a security service which it is loath to punish for its excesses. Four officers were moved to other posts following the al-Khosheh incident. In light of such feeble gestures, it is difficult to see how the government can improve its record without loosening the tight grip on power upon which its own survival depends.


© Financial Times