At civil rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldoun Center
in Cairo, it's hard to get a straight answer. Outside the ransacked
building sit three men, one in a white police uniform and two in
When asked where they come from, one says from the local police
department; another says from state intelligence. When asked if they
are protecting the recently looted building, one says yes; another
with a smile says no. But when questioned whether Mr. Ibrahim can
enter his own building, they all agree - no.
"A detachment from State Security [Egypt's intelligence services]
came to the building, ordered my guard out after roughing him up,
and occupied the building," says Ibrahim, a high-profile activist
who was acquitted in March of charges that included defaming Egypt.
It was a case that led to worldwide criticism against the
The crackdown against civil activists like Ibrahim is a window
into the murky world of Egyptian civil liberties. Egypt is a strong
US ally in the Middle East and a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
But it also has a reputation for interference with and harassment of
human rights activists, journalists, and other advocates of a free
society - something that strikes hard at those who saw the Iraq war
as a possible opening for democratic reforms in a region where
authoritarianism is the rule.
Since the war with Iraq ended, there was hope throughout the
region that greater democracy was on its way, including more
freedoms for civil societies in the Middle East.
In Egypt, there were signs the government might fulfill these
hopes when it announced several democratic proposals that the
parliament just passed this Monday, including eliminating hard labor
from the penal code, abolishing state security courts, and
establishing a National Council for Human Rights to support and
develop human rights in Egypt.
But Ibrahim's has been a cautionary tale. On the same day his
office was occupied, the government also refused the registration of
two nongovernmental human rights organizations, threatening them
with eventual closure. And earlier this week respected human rights
activist Mohamed Zarea was detained and interrogated at the Cairo
airport after attending a human rights conference in Beirut.
Human rights activists in Egypt, the region, and the West have
condemned these activities.
"It's a signal that the system is entrenched and that there will
be no change," says Mohamed El Sayed Said, academic adviser to the
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "The government is back to
its normal practice of repression and denial of assembly. It's
showing its teeth by such brutal intervention."
While many activists and intellectuals welcomed these changes,
most say the real test will be the implementation of a new, 2002 law
governing Egypt's nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Egypt's
approximately 16,000 NGOs - which provide social programs from
medical care and basic hygiene to literacy and job creation - had
six months to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs before a
June 4 deadline.
Human rights activists and others strongly criticized the new NGO
law, saying it gives the government sweeping new powers to refuse
registration or eventually shut down a group; to monitor and approve
of an NGO's key activities, including foreign fundraising; and even
to approve the selection of its board of directors. …