The Prisoner as Message

The United States’ recent stance on the case of Saadeddin Ibrahim is the first time since the signing of the Camp David Accords 25 years ago that America has made its aid for Egypt conditional upon a human rights issue. This decision has raised many questions within both Arab and international circles. What position do human rights occupy in U.S.-Egyptian relations? Or in the policies of the United States itself? Is the attempt to link human rights to the case of Ibrahim a sincere decision, or some sort of fabrication? If the latter, what is its goal? And what is the impact of this move likely to be, both on the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations, and on the future of Ibrahim himself?

Ibrahim is one of the most prominent sociologists in the Arab region. He is the author of a number of important works in both Arabic and English, as well as being one of the most prominent advocates of democracy and civil society. His status should not be marginalized simply because many Arab intellectuals and politicians, myself included, differ with some of his positions on political and human rights issues.

The accusations brought against Ibrahim clearly illustrate the political character of the case. Most of the charges relate to published articles, statements, and reports focusing on issues of democracy, fair elections, and minority rights in the Arab world. Accusations such as these could be brought against any number of writers, journalists, public figures, and NGOs–and particularly against the human rights NGOs who are constantly depicted in the media as “harming the State’s reputation.”

While Ibrahim’s political opponents have been outraged by the politicization of the charges, the accused himself, his family, and his defense team chose instead to ignore the political dimension of the case, and concentrate on refuting the prosecution’s arguments. This was undoubtedly a mistake.

International human rights NGOs have long complained that human rights do not play any significant role in U.S.-Egyptian relations. As U.S. academic analyses of bilateral relations make clear, America’s first priority is to protect its security interests in the Middle East, including the need to prevent another Arab-Israeli war, and to preempt both direct and indirect threats to U.S. access to Gulf oil.

Egypt has played a vital role in promoting this strategy since the 1978 Camp David Accords, culminating in its participation in the military coalition to expel the Iraqi forces that had occupied Kuwait.

America’s second priority is to defend its direct economic interests. This is to be achieved through the privatization of the Egyptian public sector, and any other activities that might expand the scope of action for its business elite. However, this process must not expose the Egyptian economy to any major shake-up that might adversely impact the country’s ability to play its role in securing the first priority of regional “security.”

The third priority is to secure the stability of the Egyptian political regime so as to ensure its capability of assisting with the first two priorities to the best of its ability.

As for democracy and human rights, they just don’t come into it. They are neither the fourth priority, nor the four thousandth. And insofar as they do figure on a practical level, they are entirely subordinate to the first three priorities.

There is a strong tendency within the Bush administration, which truly believes that the royal road to democratic transformation in Egypt, as elsewhere, is through ever-greater economic liberalization. This would both place a limit on the despotism of the ruling elite, and open the door to the emergence of other political actors by creating a plurality of centers of economic power. Political reform thus requires economic reform first.

But there is also another, no less powerful tendency, which wants to see political reform enacted directly. This is not because the administration holds some romantic belief in democracy, but rather out of concern for the third priority, the stability of the Egyptian regime. It believes that unless something is done to expand the political base of this regime, it is bound to suffer a crisis, which will negatively impact its role as a regional pillar of U.S. strategy. This tendency is therefore keen to see the regime take steps to assimilate the Islamists, following the example of Jordan, not out of any love for them, but as a necessary evil to secure regional political stability. After September 11th, this second tendency has become even more influential.

Neither tendency, of course, has any space in their agenda for a “democratic” mechanism that might produce a political force antagonistic to U.S. regional security interests or the peace process with Israel and enable it to power. Egypt, in this sense, is no different from Palestine, where any political reform movement that might give Hamas or the Popular Front leadership of the Palestinian Authority is simply unimaginable.

The permanent aim of U.S. policy is to promote U.S. interests. This may require some democratic “make-up,” and the camouflage may sometimes be broad enough to include the assimilation of opposition movements, but human rights per se have only ever been peripheral to U.S.-Egyptian relations. This is partly because they occupy only the shakiest of positions in U.S. policy in general.

Even those who previously cherished the delusion that Washington is out to promote democracy and human rights have been forced to revise their views in the year since September 11th. At the international level, the administration has made no attempt to hide the contempt in which it holds international human rights and humanitarian law. It has colluded with its allies in the war crimes perpetrated in Afghanistan, in addition to the crimes which its own forces perpetrated there. It has refused to let international law be applied to its prisoners of war at Guantanamo. It has withdrawn its signature from the Convention on the Establishment of the International Criminal Court and led a blackmail campaign to press other governments not to accede to the Convention, while seeking bilateral agreements to protect U.S. soldiers from international justice. It has publicly supported both the military dictator of Pakistan and the brutal murderer who currently runs Israel, while providing the latter with political and diplomatic cover for his crimes in Palestine, which have so far left more than 1,800 dead. (As a proportion of the population, this figure is equivalent to more than 150,000 American citizens.)

The U.S. has also imposed a veil of secrecy on any information relating to all those who have been detained in its prisons and denied access to their lawyers since September 11th. It has enacted legislation that contravenes fundamental standards of respect for human rights and civil liberties, establishing special military courts that fail to meet even the minimum internationally recognized standards of justice. All of these measures have been taken under the pretext of the so-called “war against terrorism,” whose definition and scope are still not known. Yet every day the U.S. expands this undefinable war’s geographical dimensions, so as to encompass acts of aggression against Iraq, and perhaps against Iran as well, and Korea. And who knows, maybe there are still scores waiting to be settled in Somalia?

As the craving for violence and war flares out of control, and U.S. high officials publicly treat the values and language of human rights with contempt, the decision to focus on the human rights of one particular person, even if this person is Dr. Saadeddin Ibrahim, can only strike us as shocking and ridiculous.

According to available figures, the U.S. budget is suffering from a huge deficit, amounting last month to some $80 billion. This figure is expected by Congress to reach $150 billion before the end of 2002, and is set to further increase in the coming year. Days before the U.S. decision to turn down Egypt’s demand for additional aid, President Bush had objected to a congressional resolution approving $5.1 billion to cover additional expenses.

In this context, it was always unlikely that the Congress would approve a proposal to grant Egypt additional aid, especially given Egypt’s inferior status in their eyes. September 11th didn’t help things either, nor did the different positions taken by the two states on issues such as Iraq, Palestine, and Sudan.

As a result, the declared link between refusing Egypt this additional aid and the case of Ibrahim seems somewhat disingenuous. Why this rhetorical gesture, then? A number of factors may have played a role. On the one hand, the U.S. needed to refresh its human rights “make-up,” both in the international arena and with liberal circles in the U.S., which are terrified by the administration’s domestic and foreign policies in the wake of September 11. On the other, the move enables the U.S. to pressure the Egyptian government on a number of other issues, without having to raise these sensitive issues directly.

The U.S. position is therefore an explicit message that the original annual aid grant ($2 billion) may now be up for reconsideration. We should expect heated discussions over the coming months in Congress when the question of aid for Egypt arises in relation to the 2003 budget.

Of the files on which the U.S. wishes to pressure Egypt, the most important are their regional political differences regarding Palestine, Sudan, and Iraq, and the issue of internal democratization, which the U.S. wants to see carried out in such a way as to ensure that U.S. interests remain unharmed.

This last file has taken on a new dimension since the rise of that tendency of thought that sees Arab societies under autocratic regimes as closed and stagnant, and thus as aggravating the hazards of terrorism within the USA itself. Supporters of this tendency call upon the U.S. to take a strong position toward political and religious reform in a number of Arab states. At the top of their list are Egypt and Saudi Arabia–the two states from which the 19 people who carried out the September 11 attacks came.

As a result, the principle that the stability of Arab political regimes is crucial to securing U.S. interests is no longer sacrosanct. Instead, stability based on political stagnation is now seen as a possible threat to U.S. national security per se. Such societies end up “exporting the likes of Mohamed Atta,” in the words of Thomas Friedman.

Meanwhile, the only certain victim of the U.S. resolution to date is Ibrahim himself. While in appearance the U.S. seems to be taking a stand on his behalf, in reality the result has been to further discredit his moral status among his fellow citizens. It is difficult to imagine that the U.S. decisionmakers were unaware that this would be a direct consequence of their action.

Some American analysts considered Ibrahim’s conviction to be a political message from the Egyptian government to the Washington to abstain from intervening in Egyptian domestic politics. Washington has now sent its own message back: we will interfere, whenever we believe the internal affairs of Egypt pose a threat to the internal affairs of America.