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The Myth of Middle East Democracy

Below is the editorial by Sahib Mustaqim Bleher in issue 30 of Common Sense on the topic of:

Middle East Democracy: A Myth - A case study of Death on the Nile

Freedom and Democracy are the buzz words by which Western governments, foremost the USA and the UK, justify their interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Humanitarian Rights is another frequently given reason, yet the application of these principles is highly selective. In Algeria, Western nations were instrumental in ensuring that the democratically elected government would not take office because it had an Islamic leaning. Democracy was cancelled, allegedly to protect democracy, for the people had made the wrong choice. An Islamic government would plunge the state into chaos and disrespect human rights. Since then, Algeria has suffered a wave of vicious unrest and massacres of whole sectors of the population, usually blamed on Islamic terrorist groups by the military government. A newly published and very extensive "Inquiry into the Algerian massacres" presents a convincing historical and empirical case that the junta is anything but innocent. As Noam Chomsky observes in his foreword: "The fundamental issue examined in this careful and judicious inquiry is the one that is left open in the preceding words: Who are the agents of the 'incredible violence' that has followed the consolidation of the military victory of the incumbent authorities? The answer provided by the victors is that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists are exacting grisly and mindless vengeance on a society they have been unable to conquer. A similar version is offered by Western power, including the beneficiaries of a curious phenomenon noted by foreign observers and in this inquiry: that the resource-rich regions of Algeria that are of primary interest to foreign states and corporations have been spared the violence, to a remarkable degree." One possible answer then to "who is behind this violence" may lie in the question "who benefits?"

Western power is quite happy to cooperate with dictatorial regimes, whether nominally Islamic or not, as long as the West's strategic interests and access to cheap resources are being guaranteed. Whilst there is often a lot of praise for the "model democracy" of the Middle East fighting for survival amidst a sea of undemocratic regimes, i.e. the racist apartheid state of Israel, no Western government seriously wants to encourage democratic movements in the Muslim world. However, Egypt is often presented as the exception: a maturing democracy deserving of Western assistance, probably because of its willingness to break ranks with other Arab states and make peace with Israel when nobody else dared to do so. Whilst we occasionally are treated to news about Muslim attacks on tourists or Christian communities, we hear nothing about the Egyptian government's strong-arm tactics in controlling the legitimate ambitions of its own people. Once the West's ally, Egypt is beyond criticism.

In this issue we intend to expose the myth of democracy, and this editorial will concentrate on so-called democracy in Egypt which died its Death on the Nile when a state of emergency was declared in 1981. For almost two decades the country has been ruled by marshal law and through a severe violation of human rights, whilst Western governments and media conveniently turned a blind eye.

The typical joke about partisan government in Egypt used to be that president Mubarak was asked to mastermind the presidential elections in the United States, because he was so successful in gaining landslide victories in his own country. President Clinton was pleased to hear that Mubarak had ensured a hundred percent turnout in the elections and that not a single opposition vote was cast, but disappointed when he further learnt that the American people had not voted for Clinton, but for Mubarak. However, truth is often stranger than fiction. If Britain was run along the lines of Cairo, Ken Livingston would have been arrested for subversive opposition to the government, and William Hague would find himself behind bars for having books on capitalism on his library shelves.

In a letter of January 5, 2000, the assistant managing editor of the Middle East Times, Paul Schlemm, confirmed that there is no freedom of expression in Egypt when he explained the procedure for newspaper publishing: "The Middle East Times goes through a pre-printing process of censorship whereby the censor's office receives advance copies of the newspaper's contents and then calls up with any modifications before printing. If their modifications are not made, the entire issue would then be confiscated and not distributed on the newsstands." Articles lost in this way can only be viewed in the "Censored" section on the Middle East Times website (www.metimes.com)

Political groups are banned from forming political parties, conferences are regularly stopped, publications are banned. Those who do not cooperate or dear to criticise the government and its law enforcement agencies, or who are unfortunate enough to be suspected of belonging to or supporting outlawed organisations will find themselves taken in for preventive detention. Such arrests have included parliamentary candidates and former MPs. They are usually taken from their homes in the early hours of the morning and eventually dealt with by military court, provided they have not disappeared in the process. Those who cannot be found are put under pressure through the arrest of members of their families including women and children. Since 1992 118 death sentences were passed, and not appeal is permitted. According to a report by a UN committee against torture "torture is systematically practiced by the Security Forces in Egypt, particular by State Security Intelligence" during interrogations. To stop complaints about the situation, even the secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, attorney Hafez Abu Se'da and his colleague Mustafa Zidan were arrested after publishing a report on human rights violations in December 1998, thereby providing additional proof for his claims.

One should think that, given the Blair governments "ethical foreign policy", Britain would have cut off all support and aid to Egypt and protested vehemently against such practices as well as against the arrest of leading trade union members in Egypt. After all, article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel inhuman or degrading punishment" and article 2 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment declares: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

The British government seems content that Egypt ratified those conventions in 1982 and 1986 respectively. The Egyptian legal code contains similar provisions. Article 42 of the Egyptian constitution states: "Any person arrested, detained or his freedom restricted shall be treated in the manner concomitant with the preservation of his dignity. No physical or moral harm is to be inflicted upon him. He may not be detained or imprisoned except in places defined by laws organizing prisons. If a confession is proved to have been made by a person under any of the aforementioned forms of duress or coercion, it shall be considered invalid and futile." Amnesty International has lent its voice to the observation that these laws are gathering dust on paper, saying that "in the name of 'fighting terrorism', indefinite detention and torture become systematic."

Notwithstanding those facts, British aid payments to Egypt are substantial: government figures for 1997/98 show a sum of 7,246,000,00 or accounting for 91% of all the aid payments to the North of Sahara region of Africa and over 1.5% of aid payments to the whole of Africa. That is more than the amount given to Rwanda, for example, and not because Egypt suffered from any kind of disastrous affliction other than her tyrannical government. There are only 12 African states altogether which receive more in aid than Egypt. The reason is not humanitarian, but strategic, a reward for Egypt's pro-Israeli and pro-Western line on foreign policy.

Of course, there are dissenting voices who are not contend with a verbally "ethical" policy. During a mock trial of members of the Muslim Brotherhood a number of British organisations worried about the lack of justice available to the defendants sent observers to signal to the Egyptian government that there abuse of the legal system does not go unnoticed - amongst them John Platt-Mills, QC, and Sayeed Mohyedeen, QC, both founder members, and the latter the present director of, Justice International, Elizabeth Lawson, QC, a deputy High Court Judge, Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham, David Musa Pidcock, leader of the Islamic Party of Britain, and Kenneth Palmerton, Vice Chairman of the Christian Council for Monetary Justice. They jointly held a press conference in Cairo before returning to the UK and followed it up with a meeting in Moses Room of the House of Lords hosted by Lord Ahmed. The intention is to keep up the pressure both on the Egyptian and the British governments. During their time in Egypt they also managed to gather further evidence from a former police chief at risk from the Egyptian regime for having blown the whistle on some of their unsavoury practices, particularly the condition under which prisoners are being held. Limited as such efforts to put the spotlight on the human rights abuses of the Mubarak government are, they are indispensable. As David Pidcock pointed out during the Cairo press conference: "All that's necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men remain silent."

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