Rights under review
By Salama A Salama
For the second time this year the Egyptian government clashed with the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) on matters pertaining to human rights and political liberties. On this occasion, the Egyptian delegation headed by the speaker of the People's Assembly boycotted the general session of the union in protest against the discussion of the case of Ayman Nour, on the grounds that this was a flagrant intervention in the affairs of the Egyptian judiciary. About 10 days ago, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a statement in which she lamented "setbacks" in Egypt's human rights record. Shortly afterwards, the US Congress reduced the level of military aid to Egypt.
One thing for certain is that the Egyptian government, for reasons that are not very convincing, has wasted an enormous amount of energy parrying off thrusts and taking counter thrusts in defence of its actions on two controversial issues that have raised considerable scepticism over its credibility in human rights and civil liberties. I am referring, of course, to the cases of Ayman Nour and Saadeddin Ibrahim. The first of these was the object of circumstances related to the electoral process; the second came under a barrage of accusations from National Democratic Party members for allegedly having tarnished Egypt's reputation and urged the Americans to use aid as leverage for pressuring the Egyptian regime to undertake democratic reforms.
I am not personally acquainted with Ayman Nour and I do not agree with much of what Saadeddin Ibrahim has to say. But this should make little difference. If, as we claim, we are engaged in a process of gradual reform we should be able to tell the difference between political rivalry and treason. It is important to keep what might be professional errors in perspective instead of blowing them out of proportion and exposing our weaknesses in a way that allows others to blackmail us and undermine our drives for constitutional and judicial reform.
These two cases have become political and propaganda sores of the type that perpetually expose us to global censorship and train attention to other shortcomings in our human rights record, from the prosecution of journalists, detention without charges and torture, to the politicisation of the judiciary and the non- implementation of its rulings to release those who have served the required penalties. The existence of all of these abuses pulls the carpet from under all pleas before international forums that no one has the right to criticise the rulings of our courts. Justice is indivisible and human rights are not bargaining chips, especially when Egypt's international image on this matter is riddled with holes and when some people are demanding that a democracy advocate, however wild his claims, be stripped of his Egyptian nationality and driven into exile, something that has only happened in Egypt under Ottoman rule and the British occupation.
It goes without saying that the concept of national sovereignty has changed. Interwoven interests and the acceptance of the principle of foreign aid have given rise to new standards in international relations. Part of the problem is that Egypt sacrificed many of its cards in this realm without having gained anything in return. It helped other powers violate the human rights of its citizens who fell into the clutches of detention centres in Europe and the US on the grounds of the war against terrorism. By so doing, Egypt joined that group of nations that can be easily kicked around, which has done no end of harm to Egypt's reputation and which has encouraged other countries to do likewise.
We must acknowledge that we are in the midst of a process of social and political development that is swinging between progress and retreat. Overcoming our many social ills requires time and patience. But it also requires a large degree of flexibility, tolerance, balance and some fine- tuning of the scales of justice. President Mubarak's executive pardon of Ibrahim Eissa and the positive response his initiative has elicited have alleviated much of the tension surrounding this issue. They have also raised hopes that the forces of change are capable of confronting their adversaries, correcting their own excesses and sewing the values of democracy, justice and political plurality. After all, change will never be brought about through the moral assassination of political opponents and attacks against those with differing opinions. People are fed up with that futile chain of behaviour that causes such attrition to the values of democracy and freedom, that erodes the foundations of trust, and that propels Egypt towards international ideological skirmishes in which it finds itself without defences.