Jamila Ismail, the wife of Ayman Nur, the jailed president of the al-Rad (Tomorrow) party, didn't know how to relate to the news out of Prague. She heard U.S. President George W. Bush reprimand the Egyptian regime in an unprecedented manner in a speech he delivered at the Democracy and Security Conference, saying that he "will look forward to Ayman Nur also being able to participate in such conferences." However, the U.S. president's support for the Egyptian political prisoner is actually liable to boomerang. Ismail is afraid, justifiably, that the greater Bush's direct support for her imprisoned husband, the more the Egyptian authorities are likely to describe him as an "American agent."
That is not a new description in the Nur family. In February 2005, when Nur was detained for questioning, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled her planned visit to Egypt in protest. Her tense dialogue with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit regarding Nur led to that same small slap in the face and Nur's being dubbed: "Condoleezza's friend." This week Bush's words also had an immediate effect. The Egyptian court imposed another "small" punishment on Nur: another two weeks of detention for "failing to return a contribution." Thus his five years in prison were extended by another 14 days.
Nur still holds the title of president of al-Rad, a secular opposition party that wants to represent the middle class and prevent the government from being handed down from President Hosni Mubarak to his son Jamal. Nur, however, is not the most popular person in Egypt. Even the members of his party are occasionally distressed when they have to defend him. But Nur became almost a national symbol when he was tried and imprisoned. Anyone who speaks today about human rights in Egypt cannot avoid speaking in the same breath about Nur's arrest.
In 2005, after President Mubarak initiated several reforms on electing the president of the country, other candidates, for the first time, could present their candidacy, and Nur decided to run. He had no real chance against the heavy and corrupt apparatus of the ruling party and in light of the chronic bickering among the opposition parties, but he managed to win 8 percent of the votes, coming in second behind Mubarak, who received 89 percent of the vote. Shortly afterward, Nur also won a place in prison. He was accused and convicted of forging registration forms of his party's supporters. And the prosecution claimed he had also paid bribes to voters and received financial support beyond the sum permitted by law.
Nur, who was a member of parliament at the time, was divested of his parliamentary immunity with unusual haste, and was tried. He is not a well man. According to his doctors, he suffers from diabetes, hypertension and heart problems. Last month, when he came to court for a hearing of his petition to advance his release for medical reasons, he was attacked by security personnel and severely beaten. Now he is awaiting another decision by a civil court, after appealing the decision not to release him for medical reasons. He did not want to request a pardon from the president so as not to undermine his status as an oppositionist.
Bush's personal intervention brought the human rights situation in Egypt back into the headlines, leading to a question: Who will decide for Egypt how to implement human rights, the Egyptian administration or the U.S. administration? The official Egyptian reply is absolutely clear: Human rights are an Egyptian matter, and no external factor is permitted to interfere in its internal affairs.
In May, after an extraordinary diplomatic effort during which an impressive coalition of supporting countries was formed, Egypt was accepted as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. This is ostensibly a new body, established in 2006 to replace the UN Human Rights Committee, which was often accused of operating according to political motives.
In Egypt, government supporters celebrated. "Not zero again," said the newspaper headlines, a reference to the profound humiliation Egypt experienced when it received not a single vote for its candidacy to host the soccer World Cup.
This time, 168 of the 191 members entitled to vote supported Egypt, far more than the required two-thirds majority. But it was also important to hear the views of the Egyptian delegate to the UN, Maged Abdel Fattah, who explained the Egyptian doctrine on human rights: "All the steps that relate to human rights must be in accord with the consensual values of Egyptian society rather than of Western society."
A high Egyptian official was quoted at the time in the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly: "Egypt cannot permit homosexuality or sexual freedom for teenagers with the claim of promoting human rights, because large parts of society are adamantly opposed to these Western values." Human rights are an internal matter, claims Egypt, rather than a universal one.
Ostensibly, this is a viewpoint that Bush should oppose, but it turns out that he too can support it, under appropriate circumstances. More than 850 members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were arrested before the recent elections to the Shura Council (a kind of upper house) hoped that Bush's words regarding Nur's fate would bring their problem back into the headlines.
After all, Nur was sentenced for a criminal matter, whereas they are under arrest for genuine political reasons: violation of the election propaganda rules and of the new amendment to the constitution, which forbids political parties from running on a religious platform. But the administration in Washington, which sends official representatives to Egypt every year to examine the situation of religious rights, did not say a word about the arrest of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are seen as a danger to democracy as Bush defines it, and perhaps Bush does not discern the obvious differences between terror organizations and ideological religious movements.
Thus, the ethical filter of the Bush administration knows how to distinguish between Nur and the Muslim Brotherhood, or between a democracy that is seen as secular and "Western" and the desire of a religious movement to participate in the democratic festivities. One is permitted and one is not, and who decides the rules? For the time being, Washington. And that is what makes both the Egyptian liberals and the government so angry, to the point where the two groups are seen as political bedfellows in the op-ed pages.
Here for example is Abdallah Kamal, the editor of the pro-government newspaper Ruz al-Yusuf, which fights for secularism. Kamal praised the Egyptian foreign minister when Egypt won a seat on the Human Rights Council. Among other things, Kamal wrote in a May article, "There is no question that the attitude of several of the human rights organizations and societies in Egypt toward the vote in the UN was embarrassing. This is an attitude that resembles a stab in the back of national affiliation."
The crime of these organizations was that they thought it was not fitting that Egypt, whose human rights record is dismal to very dismal, should win a seat on an international committee that requires its members to promote human rights. These movements are immediately seen as traitors to the national interest, if only because they want to promote human rights according to international, i.e. American, criteria. This means that they are nothing but American agents. It is interesting that it is the very movements that are "suspected" of a connection with the U.S. that accuse it of granting Egypt its seat on that same UN council.
The paradox is that when Christian human rights organizations accuse the U.S. of supporting the Egyptian regime, they find themselves in the same boat as the government press, which condemns the U.S. for intervening in human rights issues in Egypt and trying to dictate whom to release and when. Suddenly even the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hated by the government, is creeping toward the same viewpoint along with the government and the secular liberals, who are ready to attack the U.S., if not because of human rights, then at least because of Iraq or the Palestinian problem.
One such serial reprimanding voice is Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the Lonodon -based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi: "Where were you when America occupied Iraq, why didn't you attack it then?" Atwan claims that Bush did in fact commit all the crimes in Iraq in the name of democracy "but that doesn't mean that his demand to release oppositionist Ayman Nur is a crime that justifies this whole attack against him by the Egyptian media. The same media that remained silent when Bush committed those same crimes."
The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland recently published a report about the views of Egyptian citizens regarding the U.S. According to the report, over 90 percent of the Egyptian population despises America. What the institute did not succeed in explaining is how so many Egyptians want to learn English and work in American companies, when in the same breath they attack it for its policies. And maybe this is only an internal discourse, in which each side is trying to position itself, and will always be happy to participate in a prestigious conference held in the U.S. to describe its anti-American views.
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