Egypt’s Regional Role Tones Down Western Criticism On Civil Liberties

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“We are not really receiving as many complaints as we used to about this issue. It ‎does come up, but it is no longer material for nagging. We are done with that,” said a ‎concerned government official answering a question on how far the West goes ‎in bringing up the record of civil liberties in Egypt.‎

‎“Our line is clear: whatever is being addressed by the judiciary is subject to the discretion ‎of the judiciary. All alleged violations are subject ‎to due investigation and all other claims are just claims,” he added firmly.‎

The West is for the most part putting the matter on the backburner, at least for now, the ‎same official added. “The fact of the matter is very simple: when they have to choose ‎between whatever is strategic and security-related and matters related to human rights ‎complaints in Egypt, they surely go for the first,” he explained.‎

Civil society under pressure

For many activists and human rights workers in Egypt, the issue of human rights and civil ‎liberties has become wracked with dilemmas.‎

‎“We don’t want the West to intervene, because this intervention is often used by the ‎pro-state media to defame the entire movement of civil society. But we are also faced with ‎an aggressive attack on civil liberties and we are not sure how to go about confronting it,” said ‎Hanan Ahmed, a human rights worker.‎

According to Ahmed, “Activists and workers in civil society are being aggressively ‎intimidated, essentially by a set of laws like the protest law, which is being ‎contested as unconstitutional, or the draft NGOs law, whose constitutionality is also to be ‎contested.”

Last Thursday, Ahmed was dismayed when two of the most prominent younger women ‎activists currently in prison, Sanaa Seif and Yara Sallam, were kept in detention along with 15 other women ‎activists on charges of “violating the protest law” which, in Ahmed’s words, “is all but prohibiting ‎demonstrations.”

During a six-hour court session, lawyers — including prominent names like Khaled Ali ‎and Sameh Ashour — desperately appealed to the court to release the defendants, not just ‎on the basis of the “contested constitutionality” of the protest law, but also on the ‎basis that there is no proof that the defendants took part in the ‎demonstrations in question.‎

On 26 November a verdict should be issued. Ahmed is not optimistic. Her fears are ‎not only for the activists in the case. “The attack on activists is not masked. The attack on demonstrations, as we have ‎seen throughout the first days of the academic year, is relentless,” she said.‎

For Ahmed, as for the vast majority of activists marginalised by ‎state institutions after months of intense engagement that prepared the ground for the military-led ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, the issue is not ‎about Sanaa or Yara, or any of the many like them in detention, including prominent names like Mohamed Soltan and Ahmed Douma. It is an issue of liberties and freedoms that they fear Egypt’s ‎new authorities are trying to limit, “under the pretext that the country is at war with ‎terrorists,” or that “the country is on the verge of falling apart due to an overdose of ‎demonstrations that undermined the economy and the performance of state ‎institutions and services.”

The struggle on campus

‎“The aggression applied — whether directly or indirectly — by the state against university ‎students for their rejection of coercive on-campus security measures, seen ‎during this week, is a clear sign of where the state wants to go,” said Ahmed Samir, a widely ‎followed blogger.‎

During the past week, security acted aggressively to quell attempts by university ‎students, alleged by state officials to be Muslim Brotherhood affiliates but said by ‎students to be from a much wider political spectrum, to take down new security ‎arrangements, including gates, put up by a private security company in over 10 university campuses nationwide.‎

Samir added: “The state wants to go the extra mile in repressing liberties, and to be ‎honest about it, it is not just the state. There is a good segment of society that is willing to ‎go along with the arguments put forward by the state, even if they might take ‎exception to the harsh treatment of university students. In general, they are ‎all for a firmer security grip, and that has been put in place firmly.”

‎“The claim is that they want to make sure that Muslim Brotherhood students would ‎not start angry and violent demonstrations. But the fact of the matter is that [the ‎authorities] simply and firmly decline any kind of political activities or even debate within ‎the universities. And it is not just the students, but professors as well,” said Mahmoud ‎Magued, a student at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Engineering.‎

Neither sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, “who are willing for sure to ‎also go the extra mile in their confrontation with the state on campus,” or ‎with the ruling regime, which he finds “oppressive with a public green-light,” Magued is convinced that the arm wrestling between authorities and the Muslim ‎Brotherhood on campus will not be easily settled in favour of either side, ‎‎“especially that despite the fact that [the Muslim Brotherhood] have been significantly weakened in universities, ‎they are not alone in the fight against state oppression.”

‎“The protest law and the security measures introduced at universities are only ‎two items on a long agenda of what the Muslim Brotherhood and the ‎revolutionary quarters — who are still opposed to the Islamist camp — share,” Magued argued.‎

Media and popular opinion

Omar Naguib, whose brother was recently hurt in the confrontation at the Faculty of Eengineering at Alexandria University, “despite the fact that he was not taking part in the ‎confrontations,” is very concerned about the future.‎

‎“I think that this security attack is only going to anger many who would not have been ‎otherwise taking part in demonstrations and would prompt them to actually demonstrate,” ‎Naguib said. He added that his brother and many of his friends are now determined to demonstrate ‎against the security schemes at universities.‎

Throughout the week, Cairo-based Western diplomats followed carefully the tug of war ‎between students and security forces. The impression that many shared with Ahram ‎Online is that security agencies are acting with considerable support from the media and the ‎public. As such, the diplomats argued, the students demonstrating are no longer (“as they ‎used to be during the rule of Morsi,” one noted) just “angry students” but “members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are trying to bring down the state.”

‎“I am sure [President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi] would not have wanted any of this, but I am also sure ‎he is not very worried about it,” said one of the oldest serving Cairo-based Western ‎diplomats.‎

She added: “We have been getting signals from official quarters and pro-El-Sisi ‎politicians that we met with throughout the summer that the president would act to issue ‎pardons for a large number of the detained activists. Some of our sources have been ‎optimistic enough to include some Islamists. But none of this has happened, and in ‎fact the president had declined to use his mandate to even introduce cosmetic ‎amendments to the clearly unconstitutional protest law.”‎

She continued that she has noticed “hardly any unease on the side of Egyptian political ‎forces” regarding the fact that Egypt has been without a parliament for over two ‎years, since a court ruling dissolved the Islamist-majority parliament prior to the election ‎of Morsi in 2012. Ahead of parliamentary elections under a law that has been contested as handicapping Egypt’s democratic transition, and amid ongoing speculation as to a firm date for elections, the president holds both executive and legislative powers‎ exclusively.

‎“I speak to intellectuals who say outright that they would rather if the parliamentary ‎elections are delayed than if they are held in a situation whereby the Islamists might have a ‎significant share,” she added.‎

Western regional priorities

According to this and other diplomats in Cairo, the West today is not ready to push any boundaries in bringing up the issue of freedoms and democracy, even though such matters are still ‎‎“mentioned” only to be “faced with answers related to the war on terror across the ‎region.”

What is also true, according to the several Western diplomats who spoke to Ahram ‎Online in Cairo, and from some key Western cities, is that the West is counting on Egypt — “a ‎great deal” in the words of one — to help with the war on “terrorists in the Middle East.”

‎“It is in the interest of Egypt to eliminate terrorists on its borders, especially in Libya and ‎also in Gaza. It is interesting for us in southern Europe to see the south of the ‎Mediterranean being stabilised, because if not we will face a nightmare of illegal ‎immigration,” said one who spoke to Ahram Online by phone.‎

It is with these realities in mind that this week US Secretary of State John Kerry is reported, ‎by both the Egyptian and American sides, to have had good talks with President El-Sisi on ‎the fringes of an international conference Egypt hosted, and that was inaugurated by ‎the president, on the reconstruction of Gaza after the 51-day Israeli war this summer.‎

Both Egyptian and American sources say that Kerry was reassuring of the support of the US ‎administration to help deliver several suspended US ‎military aid items (the Americans are talking about delayed Apache helicopters essential ‎to counter-terrorism efforts in Sinai and “on the ‎border with Libya,” while Egyptian sources are talking about F16s).‎

‎“Things are moving in the right direction. And it is not just about the Apaches ‎and the F16s, but about overall international recognition we secured this week ‎with the conference on Gaza,” said an Egyptian diplomat. ‎

Western diplomats agree that if their capitals had to choose between direct ‎security interests challenged by groups like the Islamic State and the pursuit of democracy in the Arab world, which does ‎not seem a priority for many in Arab societies now (“especially in Egypt,” one outgoing ambassador said), the obvious choice is the first.

Source : Ahram online