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On The View From Egypt, Part Two, Or, If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Lock ‘Em  Up   November 15, 2008

Joe the Biden famously warned us that the new President will be tested by a foreign policy challenge–and most of us assumed that challenge would come from somewhere like Pakistan, Afghanistan…or Russia.

New developments in the Middle East are suggesting that the challenge might come from an entirely different direction.

It’s quite a story we’ve been telling–and today’s installment involves massive electoral manipulation, intimidation, imprisonment… and a recanting witness who dies in his jail cell.

Hop on board the international train, Gentle Reader, and we’ll see what we can learn about a country that is hardly an enemy…that is, in fact, such an ally that they have been willing to torture for us.

As the title notes, this is Part Two of a larger story, so let’s recap:

The Arab Republic of Egypt has been ruled by various versions of one political party more or less forever. That political party is today known as the National Democratic Party (NDP); and at its head is Egypt’s President (since 1981), Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s Constitution is written so as to ensure the perpetual dominance of the NDP. For example, the Government is allowed to license political parties…and may revoke that license if a Party violates the law.

Egypt’s Constitution says that “national unity” is the principle to which politics in the Republic shall adhere, which means any political party that advocates any change in the way the NDP is running things is potentially guilty of a violation of law.

The recap complete, let’s move on to new business.

There are other political groups in Egypt besides the NDP, but the opposition is kept very tightly controlled.

One opposition group that exists, but really doesn’t is Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (in English, the Muslim Brotherhood).

The group has been officially banned in Egypt, but individuals “unofficially” supporting the Brotherhood have run successfully for Parliament. (In 2005, the unofficial Brotherhood candidates won 20% of Parliamentary seats.)

It is said that Mr. Mubarak allows the presence of the Brotherhood, partly to convince Americans that he and the NDP represent the only option other than Radical Islamism…and partly because his own citizens support elements of the Brotherhood’s platform.

Not unlike other Islamist political organizations, the Brotherhood also provides social services in ways the Government does not, which has also strongly connected the group to Egyptian citizens.

Some report that the Brotherhood is associated with extremists, others report that the Brotherhood has in recent decades chosen a moderate path, seeking to impose Shari’a Law through elections and other political means. It is likely that both statements are, to some degree, correct.

Partly because the Government has tolerated the Brotherhood–and partly because the Brotherhood has become powerful enough to demand it–Islamists have gained authority as de facto cultural rulemakers; which, ironically, has led to the Brotherhood acquiring the very political influence Mr. Mubarak’s Government had hoped to avoid giving away.

In an attempt to reduce that influence, there have been various crackdowns on the group….meaning that from time to time the Mubahath el-Dawla (Egyptian State Security) “rounds up the usual suspects” for a bit of intimidation, beating, and torture…with jail time applied as needed.

Other means are also used: as an example, virtually the entire slate of candidates that hoped to run as “Independent” candidates (but were widely perceived as being associated with the Brotherhood) were disqualified by the Government, with only 20 being allowed to run for the 52,000 positions available in the April 2008 elections. (These were the same candidates that had won 20% of the seats in Parliament, and it was expected that they would also do well in the local elections.)

The Brotherhood, despite the best efforts of the Government, is not the only opposition.

There have been a variety of efforts over the years to mount other “reform” candidacies; and today Egypt’s most successful reformer outside the Brotherhood is Ayman Nour.

Of course, in Egyptian politics, success is relative.

Nour, an attorney by trade, was elected to Parliament, but his first major success came just three months after he formed the El-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party in an effort to put himself in contention for Mr. Mubarak’s job in the 2005 Presidential election…when he was stripped of his Parliamentary immunity, arrested, tossed into prison, and charged with conspiring to forge some of the signatures that were on his nominating petitions.

Additional success came in the form of the Party’s newspaper being banned the day before it was scheduled to hit the newsstands.

In the subsequent trial, monitored by Human Rights Watch, the State was able to present co-defendants who admitted their own culpability in the forging of signatures, and who then named Nour as the group’s ringleader. Nour denied having ever met five of his six alleged co-conspirators.

It was alleged by Nour’s defense that Egyptian State Security had “assisted” the co-defendants with their recollection of events—and in fact, one of the co-defendants, Ayman Isma’il Hassan, recanted his testimony in open court, claiming that he was coerced into his confession.

The State Department offered this comment on December 24, 2005:

The United States is troubled by the Egyptian court decision convicting civil reformer and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour. Mr. Nour’s trial has been marred by irregularities and inconsistencies, and has failed to meet the international standards of transparency and respect for rule of law that the Egyptian Government has publicly espoused.

Mr. Nour’s detention and sentencing raise serious concerns about the path of political reform and democracy in Egypt, and is inconsistent with the Egyptian Government’s professed commitment to increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society.

We note reports that Ayman Nour’s health appears to be deteriorating, and we urge the Egyptian Government to consider his humanitarian release.

The United States and the international community have been following with concern the Government of Egypt’s handling of Ayman Nour’s case. We will continue to press for his release.

Nour received a five year sentence and was sent to the Mazra’at Tura Prison.

As it turns out, Hassan, the recanting witness, did not survive the events of the trial and his own five year sentence that followed: it is reported that he was found by his three cellmates hanged in his prison cell when they awoke one morning in September 2007.

I love a good cliffhanger…especially when they are real.

With that in mind, this is where we stop for today—but here’s what you need to know:

Nour’s story, despite the intimidation and imprisonment, is far from over.
The intimidation and imprisonment (courtesy of a Government we strongly support) isn’t over, either.

The next time we meet, there’s a lot more story to tell: the Internet becomes the opposition’s most dangerous weapon, the Government responds with “spontaneous demonstrations” and arson…and we discover that in Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt, bloggers are such a threat to public order that they are now themselves targets for torture.

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