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Egypt's democracy charade

ALL HE wants to do is go home. But Hassan El Sawaf can't. His country is occupied by gun-toting thugs. They've dishonored more than a few Arab women by ripping off their hijabs and assaulting them at demonstrations. They track the moves of potential dissidents and wreak violence on anyone who openly challenges their authority.

You'd think I'm describing the plight of Palestinians, but I'm actually talking about Egyptians. El Sawaf, a businessman, has been told that if he leaves London and returns to Cairo, he'll likely be thrown in jail.

''I have committed no crime," he insists. ''I have no debts. I do not deal in drugs or weapons. What I do is write in a couple of magazines and on my website."

With a few glorious exceptions, what he writes is polite. So polite that it can be subversive. He doesn't skewer anybody personally. He merely questions authoritarianism.

''The military, the police, the intelligence service, and the presidential spending figures are not available, even to the prime minister," El-Sawaf reveals. ''Our toothless parliament is only privy to what they are innocuously allowed to play with."

In other words, Egypt's elected legislators are children fiddling in a sandbox, supervised by profligate and democratically stunted grown-ups.

But why should the rest of the world care? At this, El Sawaf gets animated. He quotes a fellow Egyptian, the renowned sociologist and democracy champion Saad Eddin Ibrahim: ''Societies that restrict the space for citizens to participate and express dissent will eventually spawn a twisted, angry, and lethal response."

Translation: Wake up, Westerners. Radical Islam gains bloodthirsty adherents when mosques take over for legislatures because fair political representation no longer exists.

And the fact is, it doesn't exist. Egypt's 24-year-old Emergency Law, introduced to crack down on Muslim militants, has been exploited to zap political modernizers too. While letting President Hosni Mubarak hang onto power longer than he promised, the law puts honest-to-goodness democrats behind bars.

Saad Ibrahim is a case in point. He runs the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center, named for a 14th-century Muslim intellect who pioneered the study of cultures. Among the center's mandates: to record human rights violations and monitor elections in Egypt. You can see where we're headed.

Five years ago this month, officers rounded up Ibrahim as well as 27 others from the center and the League of Egyptian Women Voters. Their 45-day detention led to a seven-month trial in a military-style tribunal that operates outside the rules of due process.

For more than two years, the government shuttled Ibrahim between court and jail, each time trying him on flimsy charges and imposing harsh sentences.

Then George W. Bush went to bat. Knowing that Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid, he canceled a $130 million increase. With word of that decision, the president included a letter of protest about Ibrahim's latest conviction.

In Cairo, bureaucrats and intellectuals went berserk over Bush's intervention. But 100 liberal Arabs from around the world followed Bush's lead and sent the Egyptian government their own letters to support Ibrahim.

A few months later, Egypt announced another trial for him. After that, the government cleared Ibrahim once and for all.

Hassan El Sawaf wants more such shaming of the Mubarak government. As far as he's concerned, the world needs to stick its nose into Egypt for the sake of our collective security. Surf Arab chat rooms these days and you'll see he's not alone.

For now, however, he's very alone in fighting Egyptian authorities. ''I'm asking them to either publicly deny the charges I stand accused of or to announce what those charges are," he says.

President Bush's marching orders are clear: Stop cushioning the four-term, nominally elected Mubarak. Get serious about helping Egyptians integrate his most vocal critics, including Islamists, into an electoral process. It's a legitimate way for the frustrated and fanatical to have their say.

Meanwhile, Muslims worldwide have an obligation. If they defend El Sawaf's right of return as much as that of any Palestinian, then don't be hypocrites. Call on Mubarak to let his people go.

Irshad Manji is author of ''The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith."

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