Egypt’s Iron Fist: Crushing Terrorism, or Human Rights?

CAIRO – Brute force used in Egypt to contain terrorism has come at the expense of civil liberties, rights supporters say.

"The government crushed the terrorists, but it also crushed the people," says Ahmed Osman, an Egyptian business owner. He claims he shaved his beard to avoid constant police harassment.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country (76 million), fought its own battle with Islamic militants in the 1990s. Some 1,200 people, mostly militants and policemen, were killed during a five-year campaign by armed radicals attempting to topple the government and install a purist Islamic state.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak came down on the militants with an iron fist. Security forces rounded up suspects in nationwide security sweeps. Rights groups claim over 20,000 alleged militants were detained and subjected to systematic torture, and that many were executed.

The result, boast Egyptian authorities, is not a single terrorist attack on Egyptian soil since militant leaders agreed to a unilateral ceasefire in early 1998.

Dr. Gehad Auda, author of Globalization of the Radical Islam Movement maintains that Mubarak’s regime "did everything right" in fighting extremism both at home and abroad.

"Egypt was successful in managing the risk in a way that reduces the risk," he told IPS. "Yes, it was bad from a human rights perspective, but from a strategist’s viewpoint it was the right thing to do."

He cautions, however, that one prescription cannot cure every ailment. "Just because it has been successful in the Egyptian case doesn’t mean it will work in Saudi Arabia."

Dr. Denis Sullivan, director of the international studies department at Bentley College in Cairo questions whether Mubarak’s brute tactics ever really worked at all. "If people buy the argument that [Mubarak’s] tactics ‘won,’ then it gives more cover to anyone, including the U.S., who will say the only way to win is through a massive crackdown on human rights, massive force against militants, and if civil liberties and the rule of law get trampled, it’s the price that must be paid."

Sullivan accused the Mubarak regime of using the "threat of terror" to crush both terrorists and political enemies. He said Egypt’s anti-terrorism campaign thinly veiled an attempt to silence opposition groups.

Hardest hit is the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Islamic group widely regarded as the government’s biggest political opponent. The group’s members are frequently targeted in security crackdowns that officials claim are necessary to stop it spreading extremist ideas.

"The government looks at the Muslim Brotherhood as an extension of extremists and believes they threaten the regime," said Hafez Abu Sa’ada, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). "It has rounded up about 200 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the last year … only for political reasons."

Prior to 9/11, the United States often criticized the Mubarak regime for such abuses of power. Now, say activists, the Bush administration is conspicuously silent.

"The government does not leave room for Islamists to operate," affirmed Diaa Rashwan of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He said informants monitor cafes and mosques, and police round up anyone suspected of subversive activity.

Rashwan did not rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack, but said leaders of Egypt’s two main extremist groups (al-Gama’a al-Islamiya and al-Jihad) appear genuinely committed to their ceasefire. Those opposed to the truce, such as al-Qaeda mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri fled the country to carry on their fight.

"The violent [Islamists] left Egypt to fight in Afghanistan and Chechnya," he said. "The ones who remain have given up interpreting the world from a religious view and have turned to political dialogue."

Elhamy el-Zayat, chairman of the Egyptian Federation of Tourist Chambers says the Egyptian public is partly responsible for driving out the violent elements. Egypt’s last terrorist attack in 1997 when militants massacred 58 tourists near the southern city of Luxor was a "turning point" in the Egyptian mentality, he said.

Egypt’s vital tourism industry collapsed following the attack and sent the local economy into a tailspin. While many Egyptians have fundamentalist sympathies, they are unwilling to support any action that jeopardizes their country’s economic mainstay.

"The people in the street got the message after the [Luxor] attack," he said. "They understood that if we don’t have security, we lose our jobs and our ability to feed our families."

Tourism is Egypt’s main foreign revenue earner, generating $4.3 billion in 2003. Some 1.2 million Egyptians work directly in tourism and another 1.4 million in subsidiary industries.

Sullivan says the change in public attitude reduced the popularity of Islamist militants to near zero and severely compromised their ability to hide among the populace.

"In the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of everyday Egyptians, it’s not that the government won, it’s more that the militants lost," he said.

Author: Devin Powell

Devin Powell writes for the Inside Science News Service.