There's a story that when the news arrived that airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turned to one of his aides and said, "My job just got a little bit easier." Throughout the 1980s and '90s Egypt fought its own nasty, brutish "war on terror." As militant groups--Gama'a Islamiya and Islamic Jihad most prominent among them--orchestrated attacks on government officials, members of the country's Coptic minority and even foreign tourists, thousands of people were locked up incommunicado in crackdowns across the country. Most of the detained were tortured; others simply disappeared. At the height of the dirty war, some 30,000 suspected militants--or at least those unlucky enough to be regarded as such--had been whisked away to Egypt's famously inhospitable prisons. Enter 9/11 and the vaguely defined "war on terror" it inspired. Here was the perfect opportunity for Mubarak--by then a semibionic man entering his third decade of rule--to summon up his trusty narrative about fighting terror at all costs, especially in justifying his exceptional powers, not to mention his government's growing crackdowns on its own citizens.
Suddenly the sort of arbitrary detention, trials on flimsy evidence, torture and trampling of freedom of expression and assembly that had long been de rigueur in Egypt found a home under the banner of a global war on terror. When the Americans were in need of an ally in executing their extraordinary-rendition program, Egypt handily stepped up to the plate--quickly becoming one of the favored recipients of the unlucky Abu Omars of the world. Mubarak, in the meantime, continued to cooperate with the United States on security issues and maintained Egypt's fraught diplomatic ties with Israel. The country was, in turn, ensured its sustained bounty of military aid ($1.3 billion for 2008 alone)--and a blind eye was cast on its dismal human rights record.
Today, Mubarak's squeeze on civil liberties seems only to be growing tighter. The country's very own Patriot Act, in the form of an "emergency law" (this is the sort of emergency that knows no end; Egyptians have lived under its aegis continuously since 1981), was renewed in 2006 despite Mubarak's repeated promises to do away with it. A series of thirty-four cumbersome constitutional amendments hastily pushed through in March 2006 further cut into civil liberties. Among them, Article 179 places unprecedented restrictions on the right to privacy and due process, and gives the government sanction to use exceptional courts in trying terrorism suspects. While Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's smooth-talking ambassador to the United States, has indicated that a new terrorism bill will "provide for the necessary checks and safeguards on the use of executive power in fighting terrorism," the law is more than likely to be the same old emergency law in a new guise. Tellingly, the USA Patriot Act and Britain's Anti-Terrorism Law have been cited in Egyptian parliamentary discussions surrounding the bill. They have theirs, too--or so the logic ran.
When bombs went off in Egypt's stark Sinai Peninsula in 2004, 2005 and again in 2006, the state strained to frame the attacks as acts of foreign machination, even though most signs pointed to the operations being homegrown (Sinai's population has long been marginalized by the state, and the territory is thickly littered with gripes). In the bombings' wake, thousands have been arrested, and thus far three men have been sentenced to death for the 2004 bombings at the Red Sea resort town of Taba. Local human rights activists have pointed to questionable evidence, irregular trial proceedings and allegations of torture in eliciting "confessions" from the three. Even more recently, there have been indications that the state security forces may have gone as far as to fabricate incidents of terrorism to justify arrests. According to a new Human Rights Watch report, authorities have used trumped-up terrorism charges to clamp down on suspected Islamists, including resorting to arbitrary detention and torture to elicit false confessions in one 2006 case involving twenty-two detainees, referred to as the Victorious Sect.
And in recent months, the state has further turned up the heat on its enemies and civil society--particularly with the question of succession uncomfortably lingering (who will succeed the 79-year-old Mubarak?) and indications of growing opposition to Mubarak's rule. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken the lion's share of the pressure, with its highest-ranking leaders in and out of prison, while thirty-three members face trial in a military tribunal for membership in a banned organization and allegedly providing students with weapons and military training. Increasingly, the state has been monitoring the Brotherhood's financial doings. The state-run press frequently intimates that it is linked to international terrorist networks.
Torture continues to be rampant--of alleged Islamists, of democracy and labor activists, of bloggers and journalists. Authorities have shut down two NGOs in recent months, one that worked on torture cases and another on labor rights. The former, the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, had been involved in the first-ever lawsuit against a state security officer for torture. And at least ten journalists have been sentenced for various publishing offenses in the past months. Egyptian civil society has plainly seen better times.
Where are Egypt's American patrons, who for one brief moment called for reform, having occasionally leveraged their power in pushing for modest, if not merely symbolic, political openings? In a 2005 interview with ABC News on the eve of the country's first multiparty presidential election, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that Mubarak had "opened the door" to reform. But this past June, when George W. Bush voiced his concern for the fate of Ayman Nour, an opposition leader locked up on politically motivated charges, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused the American leader of "unacceptable" meddling in his country's affairs. The token gesture had been made, and it was back to business as usual. A Congressional foreign aid bill that would withhold $200 million in US military funds for Egypt--based on its human rights abuses as well as its failure to monitor weapons-smuggling into Gaza effectively--has shown little momentum since it passed the House this past summer.
And then came the news, in late July, that the United States had engineered a ten-year, multibillion-dollar arms package for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Israel and Egypt. Ostensibly designed to counter growing Iranian influence in the region, the generous deal was described by the Secretary of State as part of a "renewed commitment to the security of our key strategic partners in the region." It seemed that the business of the "global war on terror" and, by extension, of cultivating friendly autocratic regimes had once again trumped reform. Egypt's door, once showing signs of cracking open, had slammed firmly shut. Somewhere, Hosni Mubarak was smiling.