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Cairo Dispatch

Last week’s presidential trip to Africa had been developing a theme. In Nigeria, Bill Clinton discussed democracy—Nigeria's fledgling effort. In Tanzania, he discussed democracy—the crippling of Burundi's by ethnic violence. And then he flew here, where he met with Hosni Mubarak and changed the subject. Democracy was out; the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was in.

When it comes to America's relations with Egypt, that's the way it always seems to go: Egypt engages in antidemocratic practices, and the United States looks the other way, particularly if Egypt claims those practices are designed to combat the country's Islamic fundamentalists. In the past year, Mubarak has methodically muzzled his country's voices of dissent through an array of subtle tactics, including onerous new regulations on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government-directed smear campaigns against opposition parties, and attempts to weaken professional organizations. Most flagrantly, in July his government arrested and detained for six weeks the prominent sociologist and government critic Saad Eddin Ibrahim on suspicion of espionage. Too bad for Ibrahim he wasn't arrested in Lagos or Bujumbura. Then he might have made Clinton's talking points.

Mubarak wasn't always like this. When he came to power in 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, he followed his predecessor's example and nurtured Egypt's civil society. He met regularly with opposition leaders, permitted an increased number of ideologically varied publications, and approved the establishment of numerous democracy- and civil-rights-oriented NGOs. But, in the late '80s, Egypt embarked on a World Bank and International Monetary Fund economic-liberalization program that forced Mubarak's government to cede power to businessmen. And, as Egypt's private sector has grown more powerful—it now generates 70 percent of the county's GDP, compared with 24 percent a decade ago—and, accordingly, demanded more political and economic power, Mubarak has become increasingly paranoid about any other threats to his standing.

Consider the Mubarak regime's recent treatment of the Islamist-oriented Labor Party, Egypt's strongest political opposition. After the Labor Party's journalistic mouthpiece, Al-Shaab, ran a series of articles alleging financial misconduct by some of Mubarak's top aides earlier this year, the government press responded with its own stories about how the Labor Party and Al-Shaab served Islamic fundamentalists. When two dissident Labor Party members subsequently challenged the party's leadership on the grounds that the party, which was once solidly socialist, had become a vehicle for Islamic fundamentalism, the official press gave the story prominent play—the kind of coverage it seldom affords any opposition figure. The government then froze the party's activities until the dispute is resolved. And in July the Shura Council, parliament's lower house, recommended that state prosecutors ask the Supreme Administrative Court to completely dissolve the Labor Party altogether.

Mubarak has also cracked down on Egypt's civil rights groups. Under a new law enacted in May, all Egyptian NGOs must receive certification from the government's ministry of social affairs. The new law further requires, on national security grounds, that NGOs receive government approval before accepting or using foreign funds. Since the government often denies such approval, a number of prominent Egyptian NGOs, including the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and the Group of Democratic Development, an election-monitoring outfit, are on the financial equivalent of life support. Indeed, EOHR—which recently slashed its expenditures by 75 percent—has $35,000 in the bank but can't draw on it, since it comes from foreign sources. Other NGOs, like the Legal Research and Resource Center and the Geel Center, two legal-aid groups, have already closed down for lack of funds.

Even professional organizations, traditionally democratic bodies independent of the government, have been targeted. In recent years, the government has barred the Engineers' Syndicate and the Bar Association from electing officers, claiming that both groups are under the influence of Islamists. Mubarak has also undermined the Doctors' Syndicate, which outperformed government authorities in providing relief to victims of the 1992 Cairo earthquake, thus embarrassing the government. The same year, parliament passed a law prohibiting all fund-raising activities by private groups. The Doctors' Syndicate Relief Fund subsequently went bankrupt. In academia, the government recently stripped university faculties of the power to elect deans; deans are now appointed by the central government.

Not surprisingly, the crackdowns have had a chilling effect on dissent, a chill best illustrated by the domestic reaction to Ibrahim's arrest earlier this summer. Although Ibrahim—who has been campaigning for democracy, freedom of expression, minority rights, and fair elections since the mid-'80s—is a popular figure among Egypt's intellectuals and democracy activists, hardly any of them came to his defense. “Everyone was scared,” concedes Hisham Kassem, EHOR's chairman. “No one wants anything to do with a case that has a national security nature.” Sadly, that seems to go for Bill Clinton, too.

Emad Mekay is a Cairo-based journalist.

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