For Obama’s Cairo speech to have any resonance among Arabs, writes Robert Fisk, he would have to deliver his lecture from Gaza and not one of the world’s worst human rights violators, Egypt.
Maybe Barack Obama chose Egypt for his “great message” to Muslims tomorrow because it contains a quarter of the world’s Arab population, but he is also coming to one of the region’s most repressed, undemocratic and ruthless police states. Egyptian human rights groups – when they are not themselves being harassed or closed down by the authorities – have recorded a breathtaking list of police torture, extra-judicial killings, political imprisonments and state-sanctioned assaults on opposition figures that continues to this day.
The sad truth is that so far did the US descend in moral power under George W Bush that Obama would probably have to deliver his lecture in the occupied West Bank, even Gaza, to change the deep resentment and fury that has built up among Muslims over the past eight years. This, of course, Obama will not do. So Egypt, sadly, it has to be, though he will see nothing of the squalor and fear in which Egyptians live.
Only a week ago, for example, the leader of the opposition Ghad party, Ayman Nour – only released from prison by President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February – complained that he was assaulted in a Cairo street by a man with a make-shift flamethrower, suffering first degree burns to his face. Mr Nour spent three years in jail and is outraged by Obama’s visit. “It seems to have been intended to bolster the power of the regimes, not of the people,” he said. “We are absolutely astonished that our Egyptian political and civil society are ignored. It gives the impression that American interests are more important than American principles.” The investigations of human rights groups show Mr Nour has every reason to be angry.
The latest Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHR) report on government abuses in the Arab world is packed with examples of state brutality, including 29 cases of torture and ill-treatment in Egyptian police stations in just six months. The Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights, a separate group, discovered that 10 of the 29 died after torture. In one case, rights groups acquired a videotape of a prisoner being anally raped with a stick by a police officer. Other videos show one of Mubarak’s political opponents – a woman – being sexually molested by a plain-clothes police officer in a Cairo street. In 2007 alone, the Egyptian syndicate of journalists reported that 1,000 journalists were summoned to appear before government investigative officials.
A prominent case, the CIHR said, was that of Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al-Dastour newspaper, who received two months in prison for allegedly publishing “false news” about Mubarak’s health, thus “undermining public security”. Interestingly, Egyptian state television no longer shows news film of Mubarak climbing aircraft steps or conference podiums; Egyptians, of course, wonder why. When Sa’ad eddin Ibrahim, of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, called upon the US to make its billions of dollars of aid to Egypt provisional upon the country’s progress in democratic reform, he was condemned in absentia to two years’ hard labour. Several bloggers were detained for calling for a public strike on Mubarak’s 80th birthday last year. Al-Jazeera’s Howeida Taha was fined 16 months ago for “damaging Egypt’s reputation” by shooting a film on torture in police stations.
Human rights workers have been physically assaulted as well as arrested. When Dr Magda Adly, of the Al-Nadeem Centre for the rehabilitation of torture victims, left a police station in Kafr el-Dawa after interviewing four detainees who said they had been tortured, she was knocked unconscious and her arm was broken.
Why does Mubarak allow these obscenities to continue? Does he truly believe the extraordinary presidential election figures – he won the 1999 poll with 93.79 per cent, and an earlier 1993 election with 96.3 per cent – or, in his 81st year, is he afraid of his political opponents, however powerless they may be? Will he discuss all this with Obama? It is unlikely.
In fairness, the CIHR also records a series of shameful attacks on journalists by so-called Islamic courts leading, inevitably, to fines. It also recounts a vast litany of torture and executions by other Arab regimes from Tunisia to Syria, including the occupied West Bank and Gaza. So perhaps Obama should stay clear of the lot.