Cashing in on the war on terrorism

In exchange for its support since Sept. 11, Egypt has received billions in international aid and diminished scrutiny of its human rights abuses.


Issandr El Amrani
February 13, 2002 11:42PM (UTC)

As the war on terrorism expands beyond Afghanistan, United States coalition partners continue to reap the dividends. Some of that payback came last week, as the U.S. led the way for the international community to look past Egypt's record of human rights abuses and approve billions of dollars in new international aid for the country.

Last Wednesday in the Sinai resort of Sharm Al Sheikh a World Bank consultative group met to consider Egypt's request for $2.5 billion, which the country said it needed to weather an economic crisis accelerated by Sept. 11. Meanwhile, in Cairo, the fate of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent human rights activist who was given a seven-year sentence last May for accepting European Union funding for his election-monitoring activities, was decided in an appeals court. Both events' outcomes were more promising than expected: Egypt was pledged over $10 billion over three years, way over what it had asked for; Ibrahim was released pending a retrial, despite pessimistic predictions from a battered human rights community.

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The fact that the Sharm Al Sheikh meeting took place on the same day as the Ibrahim appeal verdict led to claims in some diplomatic circles that the two events were linked. Before the verdict came out, a Western diplomat who has followed the case since its beginnings said, "I think they're going to grant the appeal so that the donors can save face. They can't get money and then leave him in jail."

Ibrahim's successful appeal does not mean that his name is cleared. Observers here believe he has personally offended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had earlier complained in Washington that "too much fuss" was being made over the issue. A retrial, which should take place in a few weeks, may even bring new charges (such as espionage, which was dropped in the earlier trial) against Ibrahim. Responding to suggestions that his release was the result of pressure by Western donors at Sharm Al Sheikh, he answered, "The Egyptian government does not respond to pressure, especially under President Mubarak."

Publicly at least, the United States has stopped mentioning sensitive human rights cases like Ibrahim's that could embarrass Mubarak's government. When asked recently about Egypt's lackluster record on human rights, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt David Welch simply said that Egypt was a friend of America's, and that "friends don't put pressure on friends."

Cynics would be right to point out that turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in allied countries is also a longstanding U.S. practice. Egypt, as President Bush and countless official American visitors to Cairo have stressed since Sept. 11, has been a valuable ally in the war against terror. Egyptian officials would hasten to add that it has rallied to America's side despite very ambivalent feelings on the Arab street, where U.S. support of Israel throughout the new intifada has earned it much resentment.

Mubarak has not been shy about reminding Western powers about the risks he has taken to crack down on Islamic militants. He often mentions publicly that he had originally suggested an international conference to tackle the issue of terrorism as early as 1994, when Egypt still faced a sizable militant Islamic movement in its rural south.

But Mubarak has also been eager to cash in on his cooperation. In 1991, his government began a program to restructure its entire economy. Back then, a collapsing centralized economy was brought to the brink of disaster through corruption and mismanagement. The fact that Egypt was not faced with an Argentina-like crisis was largely due to a $14 billion bailout granted because of its support of the Gulf War coalition.

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In exchange for the cash it needed, Egypt promised to embark on economic reforms that would bring its system into line with free-market economic orthodoxy. In 1991, Egypt's biggest patron and most insistent advocate of economic reforms was the United States, which in the past few years has intensified its focus on liberalization by earmarking the majority of the aid Egypt receives toward growing the private sector -- a policy it calls "aid to trade."

The Egyptian economy was hit hard by al-Qaida's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Within a few weeks, hotels reported an 80 percent drop in occupancy rates. By January, the minister of tourism said that as much as $3 billion had been lost in tourist revenues. As international shipping slowed after the attacks, revenues from the transit tax levied on ships crossing the Suez Canal also declined sharply. Egypt's overprotected currency took a hit despite government efforts to stabilize it.

Once again, the White House came to the rescue. At any other time, moving a large aid package through the U.S. Congress would have been difficult. Congress had always viewed the reliability (and desirability) of Egypt as an ally with suspicion. Pro-Israel lobbying groups have been critical of Egypt. The Anti-Defamation League caused a minor diplomatic incident earlier in the year when Mubarak visited Washington, taking out full-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post denouncing Egypt's virulently anti-Semitic state press. The ads came complete with cartoons depicting Israeli leaders as bloody butchers and Uncle Sams being bossed around by a Shylock figure. Articles translated from the Arabic press brought up again age-old anti-Semitic libels, such as the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a late 19th century czarist Russian fraud that outlined a Jewish master plan to rule the world. Although politically motivated, they got the idea across that Mubarak's Egypt was not the moderate, progressive ally it said it was.

Pro-Israel lobbies were not the only ones to complain. The Ibrahim trial, arguably Egypt's best-known human rights scandal, had mobilized over 50 members of Congress, who signed a letter voicing their concern. Human rights groups and gay activists were also up in arms over the fate of defendants in the so-called Queen Boat case. Last May, 52 allegedly homosexual men were arrested at a discotheque-cruise boat moored in the tony Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek. Although Egyptian law does not ban homosexuality, the 52 were charged with various religious and moral offenses and dragged through the mud by the state press, which launched (alongside other media) a virulently homophobic campaign against the Queen Boat defendants.

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But those concerns all took a back seat to the importance of keeping Egypt as a coalition partner in the war against terrorism. On Jan. 3, the United States announced nearly $1 billion of funds from USAID's Egyptian program would be earmarked for "accelerated disbursement" to help Egypt overcome its current malaise. That move, USAID officials in Cairo said, came in recognition of Egypt's commitment to economic reforms. Then, on Jan. 28, the American ambassador to Cairo, David Welch, delivered a speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East during which he promised that the U.S. would "play its part" in the forthcoming donors meeting -- a promise that was interpreted here as a confirmation that America would again contribute generously. It did, committing $1.845 billion over the next three years, according to senior USAID official.

During his speech, Ambassador Welch did not, however, raise the issue of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a rather strange omission considering the American-Egyptian human rights activist was a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, where he was delivering his speech. Not so long ago, the issue was a regular complaint of Welch's predecessor, Daniel Kurtzer, now ambassador to Israel. Although Kurtzer also focused on issues of economic reform -- in particular the implementation of intellectual property, labor and other laws that have been lingering the Egypt's parliament for years -- he also raised the Ibrahim issue regularly, if discreetly, and maintained frequent contacts with Egyptian human rights activists.

While the Ibrahim trial faded from official consciousness after the verdict sentencing the academic to seven years in prison, the Queen Boat case grabbed the spotlight and caused protests outside Egyptian embassies in several European capitals. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., along with 31 other Democrats, two Republicans and an independent, wrote a letter to Mubarak urging him to reconsider policies on the treatment of homosexuals.

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That was in August 2001. Three months and the biggest terrorist attack on U.S. soil later, when the Queen Boat verdicts sentenced some of the men to up to five years of hard labor, Congress was noticeably silent. Frank found himself alone in questioning Egypt's human rights track record on the House floor when a bill to accelerate aid disbursements to Cairo was debated. The same can be said of a string of congressmen who visited Egypt this January during congressional recess. Although some of them had been critical of the country pre-Sept. 11 and signatories to the Ibrahim letter, during their visit they concentrated on Egypt's support of America over the last few months and its role in the peace process -- often praising the regime for its moderation.

For local human rights activists, whose activities have come to a virtual standstill since Ibrahim's arrest, the West's increasing willingness to ignore their problems is a depressing development. Hisham Kassem, the president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, says he's seen a definite decline in the concern of Western countries about political reform in the country even before Sept. 11.

"In the past they were being dishonest," he says of the occasional concern voiced -- but never backed up with concrete action -- by European and American states over human rights issues. "Now at least they're being honest."

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Kassem says Western countries paid lip service to spreading human rights in the region, but they held the view that the status quo should not be upset and that "Arabs are not ready for democracy."

"They showed the full extent of how much they cared in the Ibrahim case," he says. "Although they voiced concern, the government called their bluff. Now they're all sitting in Sharm Al Sheikh begging Egypt to take their money."

Ibrahim's imprisonment brought most politically sensitive activity to a grinding halt in the human rights movement, which has virtually ceased dealing with Egyptian issues in order to focus on less domestically sensitive "Arab" issues, such as the Palestinian intifada or the ongoing U.N. sanctions against Iraq. Indeed, since Ibrahim's arrest high-profile human rights violations have only intensified. Aside from the Queen Boat case -- from which most local rights groups stayed away on the grounds that any connection with homosexuality would discredit them to the conservative Egyptian public -- the arrest of Farid Zarhan, another known activist who organized pro-Palestinian (and often anti-U.S.) protests, has been another lightning rod in the human rights community.

While most Western nations expressed concern in these cases, sanctions were never seriously considered against strategically important Egypt. Western diplomats operating in Cairo acknowledge this fact, particularly post-Sept. 11, when in the words of one of them, "security has become the No. 1 priority."

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Egypt's seemingly untouchable status has now raised concern beyond the offices of local rights activists. Human Rights Watch's 2002 World Report, released in early January, warns in its introduction that the West's commitment to human rights in the Middle East is feeble. It specifically focuses on Egypt (along with Saudi Arabia) as a country that restricts the public space for debate, which it says only makes the appeal of the likes of Osama bin Laden all the greater. "As a 'partner' for Middle East peace," the report points out, "Egypt has secured from the U.S. government massive aid and tacit acceptance of its human rights violations."

Following a similar argument that human rights should be a cornerstone of an anti-terror campaign, Harvard political philosopher Michael Ignatieff wrote in a New York Times editorial on Feb. 5 that the United States should beware of turning a blind eye to Egypt's fast-shrinking space for political freedom.

"The United States," Ignatieff wrote, "to encourage the building of secure states that do not harbor or support terror, will have to do more than secure base agreements. It will have to pressure these countries to provide basic rights and due process. As the cold war should have taught us, cozying up to friendly authoritarians is a poor bet in the long term. America is still paying a price for its backing of the shah of Iran. In the Arab world today, the United States looks as if it is on the side of Louis XVI in 1789; come the revolution in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, American influences may be swept away."

Kassem, the Egyptian rights activist, makes Ignatieff's point more bluntly. "Jihad went global because you couldn't oppose from within," he warns, and reminds us that Egypt played an important part creating the Afghan Arab movement that went on to become al-Qaida in the early 1980s, when it publicly encouraged and helped local Islamists to leave the country to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. "[Ignoring Egypt's repression] is one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in the region. It's going to be a case study in stupidity, short-sightedness and lack of strategic vision."

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo writer.

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