Volume 20, Number 12
Winter Soldier Campaign
Iraq veterans against the war -- Ivaw
Eighty and Still Protesting
Nut House Econ
Behind Burma's Repression
Nukes Are Back
Eleanor J. Bader
2 Book Reviews
U.S. & Eygpt
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
With Friends Like These
U.S. solidifies relations with Eygpt, ignoring increasing human rights violations there
Laura Bush, writing in the Wall Street Journal on October 10, said: “Whatever last shred of legitimacy the junta had among its own citizens has vanished. The regime’s stranglehold on information is slipping; thanks to new technologies, people throughout Burma know about the junta’s assaults. The public mood is said to be ‘a mixture of fear, depression, hopelessness, and seething anger.’” Substitute “state” for “junta” and “Egypt” for “Burma,” and you’re left with a description of the current mood on the street in Egypt. I am referring to the same Egypt that receives nearly $2 billion in U.S. aid every year, including more military assistance than any other country in the world except Israel. It was the same Laura Bush who, in 2005, praised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his “very bold step” towards democracy just days before the opposition was beaten down by his supporters in Cairo as riot police stood watching.
In January a video of police officers raping a bus driver with a stick spread like wildfire from cell phone to cell phone, eventually making its way to the Internet. The video had apparently been sent around by those same officers as a warning to other drivers, in a bid to humiliate them. Another video showed a woman hanging from a pole by her knees and wrists, under police interrogation. In July a 19-year-old man accused of theft died inside a police station after he was tortured and burned alive. A month later, a plumber who had had the audacity to file a complaint about a previous incident of police brutality was hurled headfirst by police officers from his balcony while his 9-year-old son and wife watched. The same month, a 13-year-old boy died after being held in police custody. He had been arrested for stealing a few packets of tea from a shop. In September the government shut down the Association for Human Rights and Legal Aid (AHRLA), an NGO leading the campaign against torture in police stations and prisons.
Contrary to assertions by the Egyptian government, these are not isolated incidents. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) released a report in August 2007 documenting 567 cases of torture in police custody since 1993, including 167 deaths that EOHR “strongly suspects were the result of torture and mistreatment.” EOHR also estimates that as many as 16,000 to 18,000 people, often held in inhumane conditions, remain imprisoned without charge or trial. Some of these detainees have been held for more than a decade, including many whose release had been ordered by the courts. The banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement contends that Egyptian security forces arrested more than 1,000 of the organization’s members over the past year alone. Calls to the regime have also gone unheeded for the release of Ayman Nour of the secular Al-Ghad party, who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 elections. He has already served one year of a five-year sentence on what are widely believed to be false charges of voter fraud.
Mubarak, who is nearly 80, has ruled Egypt for the past 26 years. Although he denies that he is grooming his son Gamal to take over the presidency, for many Egyptians it is a foregone conclusion. Earlier in the year, the government took to highlighting a March 2007 constitutional referendum as proof that it is engaging in political reform. According to government figures, nearly 76 percent of those voting in the referendum endorsed the proposed constitutional changes. These include presidential powers to dissolve parliament without a referendum, to suspend civil liberties when deemed necessary to fight terrorism, and to limit the role of the judiciary in election monitoring. Opposition and human rights organizations argued that not only are the constitutional changes the result of widespread vote-rigging, they elevate presidential emergency powers to the level of the constitution.
The government, however, denies this, insisting that the new amendments represent progress for Egypt, moving the country closer to lifting the Emergency Decree in effect since 1981. Indeed, a myriad of laws around this decree facilitated the repressive environment that has prevailed for decades. One law in particular, Article 188 of the Egyptian Penal Code, has been getting quite a workout lately. It stipulates punishment in the form of prison sentences and fines for anyone who “makes public—with malicious intent—false news, statements or rumors that [are] likely to disturb public order.”
Not surprisingly, Article 188 has direct consequences for Egypt’s independent media. While much of Egypt’s press is under state control, several privately owned newspapers have flourished since 2005, when the government, under intense domestic as well as U.S. pressure at the time, allowed some opposition parties to run in presidential and parliamentary elections. This year, however, with U.S. pressure no longer a reality and the press increasingly becoming a thorn in the government’s side, the state apparatus took swift action to silence independent journalism. Most dramatically, in September, 11 journalists were handed custodial sentences for “libeling” senior members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). This crackdown on the press drew intense attention from the Egyptian public and the international media because, in an unprecedented move, four senior editors from various independent newspapers were fined and sentenced to one year custodial sentences. Less than two weeks later, the editor-in-chief and two journalists from another paper were given even harsher sentences.
Of the editors convicted, Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al-Dustour newspaper and a vociferous critic of the regime, has learned that a further, more serious case against him is being pursued, under the charge of attempting to destabilize national security by spreading false information about President Mubarak’s health. Furthermore, by allegedly spreading those rumors, Eissa is accused of driving away foreign investment, resulting in the loss of $350 million in the stock exchange. If convicted, he faces up to three years in jail.
The use of Article 188 as a weapon in the assault on liberties has not stopped with the media. Just a few days after the conviction of the four editors, the same clause was used to hand out a one-year sentence to Kamal Abbas, coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS). The case, filed by a member of the NDP, accused Abbas and his lawyer of “slander and defamation of character.” The accusation came following the reporting in CTUWS’s magazine, Kalam Sinai’ia (Workers’ Talk), of financial and other irregularities in the running of a youth center chaired by the NDP member. Ironically, the allegations were corroborated by an internal investigation led by the youth center’s own Committee on Financial and Administrative Inspection, the results of which led to the dismissal of the NDP member and the center’s board of directors. Nevertheless, the courts went ahead with the conviction of the unionists. This was proof to many that the convictions had little to do with the official charges and more to do with recent bouts of labor unrest in Egypt.
For 17 years, CTUWS has provided an alternative to the government-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions, including critical legal counseling to workers, awareness-raising about workers’ rights, and reporting on labor-rights violations. The assault on CTUWS began earlier in the year, when the organization’s headquarters and several branches were closed down by the government for “security reasons.” Faiza Rady, writing in the October 11–17 edition of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly, noted that the prosecutions come at a time “when workers, long thought to have been neutralized by the government, are beginning once again to organize and act in the face of a resurgent privatization drive that threatens their livelihoods and rampant inflation that has steadily eaten into their ability to afford the basics necessary for a dignified life.” In this privatization drive, the U.S. has been a steady presence, providing through its Agency for International Development (USAID) approximately $1.8 billion in cash transfers to the Egyptian government since 1992 for carrying out “reform-related activities, such as privatizing state-owned companies.”
A 2005 demonstration against the Mubarak government—photo by John Donoghue, GlobalAware
This leads to American-Egyptian relations more broadly and whether they have been impacted at all by the events of the past year. In June the U.S. House passed a fiscal 2008 appropriations bill that voted to withhold $200 million of the Pentagon’s $1.3 billion Foreign Military Financing (FMF) package to Egypt, pending certification that Cairo has progressed in judicial reforms, police training, and the control of weapons smuggling into Gaza. Not long after, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the original $1.3 billion Pentagon request with no conditions. Earlier in June, a group of U.S. companies with significant Egypt-related defense trade programs launched Operation Pyramid to advocate congressional support, free of any conditions, for Egypt’s 2008 FMF plan. Given that as a condition, U.S. military aid (with the exception of Israel) goes almost exclusively towards U.S. weapons purchases, it was not in the companies’ interests for relations between the American and Egyptian administrations to deteriorate. More and more, it is looking like the defense contractors will get their wish. With the nightmare in Iraq continuing, Iran growing in influence, and last ditch efforts at brokering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement faltering, Egypt’s support in the region is arguably more critical to Washington now than it has been in a long time.
In fact, Washington has recently moved to cement its military relationship with Cairo for years to come. In late July, a short time prior to their high-profile trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans to provide billions of dollars over the next 10 years for advanced weapons purchases to the U.S.’s key allies in the region, including Egypt, which stands to get $13 billion in military assistance. The main argument for the arms deal, in Rice’s words, is “to give a chance to the forces of moderation and reform” in the face of Iranian influence in the region. As with the war in Iraq, Congress showed itself unwilling to check White House power. The main concern of the Democrat-headed Congressional committees which considered the proposal had little to do with the further militarization of a volatile region; rather, they simply wanted an assurance that the weapons packages would only be “defensive,” posing no threat to the Israeli military.
Speaking to a Procter and Gamble gathering in Cairo at the height of the crackdown on labor and the media, U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Francis Ricciardone, declared that he sees “a country on the move…. What remains about Egypt,” he went on to say, “is its stability, its safety and its security…what is new is the movement, activity, dynamism and excitement.” He asked Egyptians to consider “the numerous benefits that our friendship brings” beyond aid, pointing to the flow between the two countries in trade and investment, which has increased by nearly 50 percent in both directions since 2001. Concluding, he affirmed, “We are very optimistic about you and your future.” Naturally, Ricciardone made no mention of his own State Department assessment of the human rights situation in Egypt in its latest report on the subject, which states that “the [Egyptian] government’s respect for human rights remained poor, and serious abuses continued in many areas.”
For his part, George W. Bush used a speech to the UN General Assembly the same week as Ricciardone’s remarks to urge others to join him in a broad “mission of liberation,” reproaching the UN’s Human Rights’ Council for having “been silent on repression by regimes from Havana to Caracas to Pyongyang and Tehran.” Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Belarus were singled out as particularly heinous regimes, while the situation in Burma occupied center stage. Egypt on the other hand failed to garner a single mention. Once again, human rights proved to be relative as far as Washington is concerned. In the process of protecting its strategic interests in the Middle East, Washington made sure that 2007 turned out to be just another year in the life of America’s friends in the region.
Sara Abbas has worked the past five years in international affairs and human rights, both at the UN as well as at not-for-profit organizations in the U.S., UK, and Sudan. She is currently an intern at the Nation magazine in New York.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.