The cause of democratic reform in the Middle East suffered a significant setback on Saturday when Ayman Nour, Egypt’s leading political dissident, was sentenced to five years of “hard labor” on the dubious charge of electoral fraud. Surrounded by security agents and encased in a steel cage, Nour -- founder of the progressive “Tomorrow” Party and former Presidential candidate -- defiantly yelled out “Down with Mubarak!”
Nour’s willingness to challenge authority is not new. For over a decade, Mr. Nour has led a tireless crusade on behalf of economic and political reform, assailing both Mubarak’s corrupt bureaucracy and Egypt’s powerful Islamists. His arrest in September served as a testament to his success in challenging the status quo.
Nour’s trial, like most in Mubarak’s Egypt, was a complete farce. The government failed to prove that any of its witnesses even knew Mr. Nour. One such witness broke down on the stand, admitting to the court that members of Egypt’s secret police had ordered him to implicate Mr. Nour, lest they kill his nieces. He was quickly carried away. The presiding magistrate, Abdel Salam Gomaa, is a notorious regime lackey, having made a career of convicting other Mubarak opponents. Blatantly partisan during the entire trial, Gomaa refused to issue a justification for his ruling, instead insulting Mr. Nour and his wife. The political nature of the prosecution leaves little doubt that the only crime of which Mr. Nour is actually guilty of is daring to stand up to the regime.
All is not lost. Mubarak can still intervene on Nour’s behalf; his case is scheduled for review before the Court of Cassation, which passes for an independent judiciary in Egypt. With some prodding from the President, the court could easily overturn the politically- motivated verdict and free Mr. Nour.
Such action is unlikely, however, as Mubarak is eager to avoid the appearance of fair trials and the rule of law. Such examples tend to give citizenry hope, a dangerous emotion for the doddering kleptocracy currently ensconced in Cairo.
Mubarak, however, could certainly be swayed by sufficient international pressure, especially from the United States, which pours over two billion dollars into Egyptian coffers every year. This is money that would be sorely missed by the corrupt hierarchy of the Mubarak government; even a slight diminution or delay would send shockwaves throughout the ruling establishment.
Mubarak undoubtedly views his persecution of Mr. Nour as a yardstick, a test of his ability to curry American favor while ruthlessly crushing dissent. He is wagering that, with the elections over and attention elsewhere, he can destroy Mr. Nour without seriously threatening his American aid stream. His actions also send a message to rivals that not only are their political fortunes dim, but their very freedom can be revoked as well, regardless of American words.
It is high time we call his bluff. While the White House and State Department issued terse statements condemning Mr. Nour’s imprisonment, Mubarak has ignored those in the past. Instead of statements, the U.S should -- as part of its overall effort to tie human rights to foreign policy -- attach the release of Mr. Nour to the discharge of Egyptian aid money. With successful elections in Iraq and democratic rumblings in Lebanon, the Middle East is ripe for such a simple, yet decisive move.
Those more inclined to adhere to “realist” strictures with regard to American foreign policy would remind us that the overall importance of the Egyptian alliance supersedes the case of Mr. Nour, no matter how tragic it may be. Since the Camp David Accords, Washington has consistently viewed Egypt as the Arab state we can best “do business” with. Furthermore, the realists will highlight Egypt’s cooperation with Washington on the War on Terror as an acceptable tradeoff for our overlooking repression within Egypt.
These arguments are not without some merit. After all, there are undoubtedly astounding tales -- yet to be recounted -- of Egyptian intelligence thwarting terrorist attacks and saving the lives of American citizens. Our accrued profit from this partnership, however, is withering away rapidly on the streets of Cairo. Egyptian citizens who just three months ago heard the democracy- laced rhetoric of Karen Hughes -- delivered before government-approved audiences -- now face the realities of rubber truncheons and tear-gas grenades inscribed with the words “Made in America.”
Our mixed message helped enable the Muslim Brotherhood to position itself as the principal opposition group within Egypt, having won 88 seats in recent parliamentary elections. This is not to say that a majority of Egyptians support a theocracy, something which the Brotherhood has historically advocated. Witness, for example, the Brotherhood’s recent attempts to move to the proverbial “center” of Egyptian politics, softening their image by accepting a democratic political process and even promising to attack rampant corruption. Last week, Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad Mehdi Akef even admitted that the Holocaust did indeed occur, “clarifying” his earlier comments which seemed to suggest he believed the mass murder of Jews was a myth. By tainting liberal forces with our hypocrisy, we have made their anti-government message ripe for cooption by anti-Western groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who deftly marry the polity’s resentment of Mubarak with their disgust of American pretense.
In Egypt, we can finally observe the internal democratic rumblings that we have long hoped would appear in the Arab world. Yet, at the same time, we are unable to engineer a clean break from our own permissive past. Our indecision is wearing thin among Egyptian audiences, and is pushing reformers away from liberalization and into the clutches of less democratically-inclined political parties. All the while, Mr. Nour remains at the mercy of a dictator who habitually uses American money to counteract American policy. Are we really unwilling to incur some short-lived animus from President Mubarak on behalf of democratic development, when we regularly sacrifice billions of dollars -- along with thousands of American casualties -- to achieve the same goal in Iraq?
Less than a year ago, during his State of the Union address, President Bush promised that American would “stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond.” The case of Mr. Nour would be a good place to start putting these words into action.
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