U.S. government officials, foreign policy experts, newspaper editorial writers, and human rights advocates were virtually unanimous in condemning the sentencing last week of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s chief political opponent to a five-year prison term, but divided on what can be done about it.
The White House and the State Department issued statements saying they were "deeply troubled" by the conviction and sentencing of Ayman Nour, the runner-up in Egypt’s 2005 presidential elections.
They said it "calls into question Egypt’s commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rule of law" and called on the Egyptian government "to act under the laws of Egypt in the spirit of its professed desire for increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society, and out of humanitarian concern" for Nour’s health to release him from detention.
Nour has been on a hunger strike for the past week, and reports suggest his health is seriously deteriorating.
Nour’s initial arrest on Jan. 29 and his 42-day detention without charge strained U.S.-Egyptian relations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Egypt, apparently in disapproval of the government’s treatment of Nour, who was then released on bail.
Nour had pleaded innocent to ordering the forging of signatures to register his al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party last year. He finished a distant second to Mubarak in September’s elections, Egypt’s first contested presidential race, then lost his parliamentary seat in November’s legislative polls. He is appealing the November result, alleging irregularities.
During his trial, one of his six co-defendants retracted his confession, telling the court that security officials had coerced him to make a statement accusing Nour of forgery.
Last week’s verdict was read by the same judge who convicted the sociology professor and rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American, of tarnishing Egypt’s image in 2002. An appeals court eventually overturned the verdict.
In an editorial, the influential Washington Post newspaper reminded President George W. Bush of his second inaugural address, in which he said, "When you stand for your liberty we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are the future leaders of your free country."
It concluded: "If Mr. Bush’s commitment to freedom fighters means anything at all, he cannot allow this blatant act of injustice to go unchallenged."
The newspaper urged Bush to use U.S. aid to Egypt as a lever to procure Nour’s freedom. "Standing with Ayman Nour means standing against military aid for Mr. Mubarak until this democratic reformer is free."
Beyond outrage and rhetoric, however, experts have suggested varying approaches to persuading Egypt to back down.
Moataz El Fegiery, program coordinator for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), told IPS, "The U.S. should integrate its human rights and democracy agenda into the current negotiations with the Egyptian government concerning the free trade agreement and linking the economic motives with progress in political reform."
His group also called on the European Union to raise the Nour issue "during its negotiation with the Egypt delegation on the action plan of the European neighborhood policy." CIHRS added, "Condemning and criticizing is not enough and it will not deter our government. What we are asking for is linking speeches with actions."
Neil Hicks, director of international programs for Human Rights First, a major U.S.-based advocacy group, called on Washington to "take punitive measures by withholding elements of foreign assistance and denying Egyptian leaders privileged access to the White House in gradual, incremental steps over a sustained period of time."
Hicks told IPS that Nour’s sentencing "presents a challenge to the Bush administration, which has placed so much emphasis on democratization in the Arab world in recent years."
"There are many opportunities for the United States government to show its displeasure with the Egyptian government’s repression of its political opponents," he said. "A powerful tool of influence is President Bush speaking out publicly and categorically to condemn the imprisonment of Nour, and to make clear that the U.S. administration understands and disapproves of the Mubarak government’s tactics."
Bush "should make clear that it is counterproductive and dangerous for the Egyptian government to continue to suppress the secular political opposition," Hicks said. "Failure to make clear its strong opposition to Nour’s sentencing would further undermine the already shaky credibility of the administration’s calls for democracy and freedom in the Muslim world."
Amnesty International said that the Nour issue and the "ongoing wave of arrests of alleged Muslim Brothers" appear to be "a means to intimidate members of the opposition and critics of the government and to obstruct their political activities."
The organization called on the Egyptian government to "respect its obligations under international human rights standards. In particular, all provisions criminalizing freedom of expression and association must be removed and existing safeguards must be respected."
In a recent report outlining detailed recommendations for dealing with Egypt, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace acknowledged that the U. S. "depends on Egypt for assistance with military operations in the Middle East and Africa, diplomatic support in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, counterterrorism cooperation, and Suez Canal transit."
It said the U.S. "possesses a great deal of influence but also faces increasing resentment related to its policies in the region."
However, it added, "In recent years there has been a growing sense in Washington that the Egyptian leadership’s reluctance to liberalize the economy and polity has prevented the Egyptian people from attaining the prosperity needed to ensure long-term stability."
The report concluded, "Considering the influence it possesses, the United States could in theory sacrifice all other interests and press hard for a rapid and probably chaotic transition to democracy in Egypt. Considering the risks associated with instability in Egypt, however, a more realistic choice would be to press for a significant opening of political competition, development of political and civil society organizations, and economic reform."
The report cautioned, "The U.S. cannot and should not try to force change in Egypt, and all decisions ultimately reside with Egyptians." The U.S. can, however, "use its significant influence to help press for a freer, more liberal political environment in which Egyptians will make important choices about their country’s future."
Many other experts from universities and think tanks have wrestled with the question of how to encourage democratic liberalization in Egypt.
Bush has arguably been more outspoken than previous U.S. administrations. But the bottom line may be that having Egypt as an ally in the "Global War on Terror" and a supporter of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will trump the democratization process.
Middle East observers say that, despite the billions the U.S. dispenses in aid to Egypt, Washington may have less leverage than conventional wisdom perceives.