Reforms are a complicated business. Last year, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, in his capacity as the chairman of the National Democratic Party (NDP) announced his plan for reform in party and country. “It is a time to move forward,” he said. He moved to appoint his own son, Gamal Mubarak, to oversee this new trend toward democracy.
President Mubarak said he had high hopes that the NDP will help “accelerate Egypt's integration into the global economy and encourage more active participation by young Egyptians in the process of reform and change.” Very quickly, the “change” was already apparent. In his recent visit to the U.S., Gamal Mubarak suggested that the Egyptian political system is already swimming in a sea of freedoms, like those of press and speech. He even admitted that freedom has it price as it "breeds a significant degree of opposition, and criticism of government institutions and figures.” But, Mubarak said, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, a free judiciary and the rule of law are guaranteed in Egypt, a country that has “strong pillars for an active civil society to build on."
Nice, but no cigar. Egypt operates under an “emergency law” that has not changed since Nasser put it in effect in 1958, giving the authorities extensive powers to suspend basic liberties including arresting suspects at will and detaining them without trial for prolonged periods; referring civilians to military or exceptional state security courts and censoring or closing down newspapers in the name of national security.
Implementation of democratic reforms over the past forty years has been shallow and shoddy or even counter-productive. For example: The Egyptian parliament decided last year to “implement a new approach to reform” by passing a law to oversee and regulate the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Social Affairs decided to reject the legal status of two established and important organizations – the New Woman Research Center and Land Center for Human Rights.
The New Woman Research Center, founded in the early 1990s, raises public awareness of women’s rights issues, including female genital mutilation and domestic violence. The Land Center for Human Rights, founded in 1996, works on economic and social rights issues, primarily in rural areas, many of them impacting women and families. The center has produced a series of critical reports on agricultural child labor, land tenancy issues, and environmental problems, as well as other topics. The criticism was not well received by the Mubarek government.
On June 8, 2003, the New Woman Research Center received a letter from the Ministry of Social Affairs stating that “security agencies do not approve the registration of the aforementioned foundation.” A similar letter was sent to the Center for Human Rights. “Both organizations have been spotlighting important human rights issues for years,” says Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch, “by refusing to give them legal status, the government has confirmed that the new NGO law is intended to stifle civil society.”
Egyptian democratic reform, particularly in the area of the rule of law and an impartial judiciary seems to have passed by Dr. Saad Ibrahim, a democracy activist and a professor at the American University of Cairo. Ibrahim was arrested in June of 2000 following his publication of charges of widespread fraud in the Egyptian parliamentary election. Along with 27 of his colleague at the Ibn Khaldon Centre for Development Studies, a progressive pro-reform think tank in Egypt. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. International pressure from human rights groups caused the government to release Ibrahim last year with an encouraging government admission that the “State Security court was improperly conducted.” Saad Ibrahim is unrepentant and despite failing health continues to agitate on issues of human rights issues. But the Egyptian government’s tolerance for democracy activists has limitations. They will not accommodate too many at once. As one “Ibrahim” has been released from a crowded Egyptian cell, another, of no relation, has been quietly pushed into his place.
Ashraf Ibrahim, a 28-year-old engineer, is one of hundreds of people arrested after participating in demonstrations in Cairo against the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq. Ibrahim used his video camera to document the event and he later shared some of these pictures with his friends on the internet. This activity was perceived as a threat to Egyptian state security and agents raided his home and confiscated his computer, video camera and other electronic equipment. Two days later, on April 19, 2003, Ashraf Ibrahim was arrested by officers of the State Security Investigations department (SSI.). His detention has been renewed at regular fifteen-day intervals ever since. He is being held at Mahkum Tora prison, outside of Cairo. He shares a cell with approximately forty criminal convicts, in violation of international standards. “I am not allowed to leave for more than one hour a day, my share of space is limited to an area of one and half floor tiles,” writes Ibrahim from his cell. He was told that he is held for investigation “for the crime of downloading information on human rights from the Internet” by Mubarak’s government.
“I am ready to die struggling for the principles of freedom of opinion and expression, and for my daughter's right to enjoy her simplest rights in a stable family and finally see her Dad,” Ibrahim wrote from his cell on July 21, 2003. On August 1st after more than three months in prison and with no release sight, he began a hunger strike. Political rhetoric is cheap and we better remind our allies in Egypt that we expect actions, not words.