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Eqypt and Human Rights

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Egypt and Human Rights

Published: December 10, 2003

Last month, in a welcome surprise, Egypt freed hundreds of political prisoners. Unfortunately, thousands remain behind bars. One of them, Ashraf Ibrahim, an engineer who opposed the American-led war in Iraq, is being tried in one of Egypt's infamous emergency security courts. Among the charges is "sending false information to foreign human rights organizations." The case is a sham and, along with other discouraging developments, indicates that Egypt has not ended its troubling half-step forward, half-step back approach to human rights.

When President Bush recently called for political reform in the Middle East, he said Egypt had shown the way toward peace and now should lead the way to democracy. He was right. Today's planned meeting in Geneva between President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, is most welcome. But to get changes in Egypt and elsewhere means a shift in American policy away from backing autocrats who do our bidding and ignoring abuses in their nations. A telling example came last week when Secretary of State Colin Powell visited North Africa and offered rewards but little criticism for some fairly repressive governments. What is needed is a vigorous defense of human rights, support for civil society and stepped-up programs like academic exchanges.

The administration committed $100 million in fiscal 2003 to such reforms in the region, and that step is a good thing, if still too little. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also has the right idea. In the foreign appropriations bill, he included $1 million earmarked for organizations in Egypt like the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which promotes voting reform. The center is run by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was released from prison early this year after he had been railroaded by the same kind of security court that Ashraf Ibrahim faces. His sentence was overturned by a higher court. Ashraf Ibrahim's verdict can be overturned only by the president.

This is not encouraging because it is Mr. Mubarak's government that is requiring new registration of nongovernmental organizations and has pointedly not registered several on the political left. It promised to abolish the emergency security courts but dismantled only one of the three levels. It promised to set up a human rights council but has not done so. Finally, Mr. Mubarak, who is 75 and has been in power for two decades, has done nothing about promoting a modern succession. Instead, he seems intent on installing his son Gamal in power. The United States, which gives Cairo $2 billion a year, has done far too little to counter any of this.


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