Egypt tortures for the US, so why not on its own
Human rights cannot be regional or selective:
Guantánamo, Belmarsh, Laz Oghli and Facility 1391
stand or fall together
Thursday March 9, 2006
The story of Maajid Nawaz, Ian Nisbet and Reza
Pankhurst, the three British Muslims who travelled to
Egypt with their families, their detention there,
their trial and their release now, almost four years
later, encapsulates several elements in the
"east-west" or "war on terror" story. Media coverage
in the UK has focused on the men's Britishness and
whether the British government did enough to help
them. As usual, events outside the western hemisphere
are presented as though in a void. So here's a
pencilling in of the local background.
Twenty-six young men were arrested in Cairo and
Alexandria on April 1 2002, accused of membership of a
banned group. This was not an extraordinary event.
Over the past three decades, such arrests, detentions
and kidnappings have become fairly common. People
disappear. Friends hunt for them. Usually they are in
the State Security Investigation Bureau in Laz Oghli
Square in Cairo. They are generally held long enough
to extract a confession. Their treatment ranges from
insults, threats and beatings to fairly evolved
methods of torture. Sometimes the person is not
required to confess to anything; they are given a
warning and let go.
Sometimes the person dies. Mostly, they are sent to
jail to await trial. Once in jail, they are generally
not ill-treated, but conditions are basic. There are
about 15,000 political detainees in Egyptian jails.
Some have been found innocent years ago. Some have
never been brought to trial. Some have been there more
than a decade. The young men arrested in April 2002
were accused of membership of the banned and avowedly
non-violent Islamist group, Egyptian Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Among them were the three Britons. They were members
of British Hizb ut-Tahrir - a group that is not (yet)
The defence team for the men consisted of 15 Egyptian
lawyers from across the political spectrum; from
Muntassir el-Zayyat, eminent legal counsel of the
Muslim Brotherhood, to Ahmad Sayf, popular leftwing
head of the Legal Aid Centre, who served pro bono
along with two lawyers from the Civil Liberties
Committee of the bar association.
The case was tried in the state security emergency
court, part of the apparatus supporting the emergency
laws. These laws were first introduced to Egypt by the
British occupying power during the first world war.
They were reinstated, again by the British, for the
second world war - and successive governments have
used them as an instrument of oppression ever since.
The state security emergency courts allow no further
legal recourse - their decisions are not open to
appeal, except directly to the president. Some are
seen as vulnerable to political pressure. The
dismantling of the emergency laws is a central demand
of the opposition movements, which made their presence
felt in the streets and in elections last year.
The evidence seized from the men's homes took a year
to examine. It was mainly books and articles, many
published by the prestigious al-Ahram Centre for
Political and Strategic Studies, by mainstream
publishers and by human rights organisations.
Submitted to the court were some 200 reports from the
Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, the state
adjudicator on religious matters on the religious
content of the material - all declaring it innocent.
Sayf (who has himself spent time in jail) is convinced
that none of the young men did more than discuss and
publicise theoretical ideas about alternative forms of
government. I attended a summing-up session at court,
in June 2003. Here are the impressions I noted down
that night: "Reza Pankhurst's Iranian mother and
English father are here. There's a lot of sympathy for
them as foreigners and parents - their lad caught up
in this mess ... What struck me was the difference
between the accused and the rest of us: the security,
the relatives, even the lawyers looked worn, dusty and
frayed. Inside the cage, the young men were collected
and dignified ... Mrs Pankhurst said to me: 'I get my
strength from him, from Reza' ... The judge, Ahmad
Izzat al-Ashmawi, has clearly lost patience with the
prosecution. He declared that he will deliver his
verdict on December 25. Everyone believes he will
throw the case out."
On December 22, Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmad Maher,
paid a highly unpopular visit to Jerusalem. On a visit
to the al-Aqsa mosque, shoes and slippers were thrown
at him and some of his attackers managed to slap him.
The Egyptian media blamed the Palestinian Hizb
ut-Tahrir. In Cairo, Judge Ashmawi postponed declaring
the verdict for three months. On March 25 2004, he
declared the men guilty and handed down sentences
ranging from one to five years.
Egypt is an important regional power. It is critical
to US and British policy in the region: officially the
spreading of democracy. But a real democracy in Egypt
may not deliver what people perceive to be US and
British aims: to secure strategic and economic
interests, push ferocious free-market "reforms" and
promote Israel. So the US and Britain support the
status quo and its apparatus, while offering
patronising lip-service to democracy.
The debate about whether the British government did
enough to help its citizens is disingenuous. Why
should Egyptian authorities pay heed to British ones?
In Britain, we allow extraordinary rendition flights
to stop-over in torture trips. The prime minister
calls Guantánamo an "anomaly". He appoints to the
Foreign Office a lawyer who advised Israel to block a
UN investigation into Israeli army activities in
Jenin. In Egypt, our government tortures - presumably
- at the behest of the US. Why not, then, on its own
Egypt's judges are convening on March 17 to demand,
yet again, the reinstatement of the judiciary's
independence. Opposition voices have called on
citizens to hold a vigil in their support.
The 23 Egyptians and Palestinians arrested and jailed
along with Nawaz, Nisbet and Pankhurst are still in
detention. They remain, according to their lawyers and
to precedent, subject to torture. The young sister of
one of the Palestinians is dying in a Jerusalem
hospital. Her hope of survival is a bone marrow
transplant for which the only candidate is her willing
brother. And he doesn't even have a Tony Blair to not
speak up for him.
Human rights cannot be regional. The rule of law
cannot be selective. Guantánamo, Belmarsh, Laz Oghli
and Facility 1391 in Israel are part of the same
configuration; they stand together or - one hopes -
© Ahdaf Soueif
· Ahdaf Soueif's latest book is Mezzaterra, Fragments
from the Common Ground
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