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Egypt Again Is Under A Law Allowing Mubarak To Rule With An Iron Fist; No Reforms.

*** Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gom'a Has Banned All Sculpture; Qatar-Based Shaikh Yousef Al-Qaradawi has Endorsed Gom'a's Fatwa And Prohibits The Trade Or Possession Of Statues; But This Country Is Dotted With Millenia Worth Of Pharaonic Antiquities; The Problem Is That Several Sunni Religious Scholars Backed Gom'a's Decree; Yet Cairo Is Ignoring This, Focusing On The Tourism Industry Which Has Faced Renewed Violence From Neo-Salafi Militant Groups

*** The Muslim Brotherhood, Now Having 88 Seats In Egypt's House Of Parliament, Is Determined To Keep Enlarging Its Power Base; Wants The Syrian MB To Take Power In Damascus

CAIRO - The Mubarak regime, rather than introduce political reforms promised in 2005, is ruling Egypt - the biggest country in the Arab world - with an iron fist. This is thanks to a state of emergency in force since October 1981 and likely to be followed by an equally, if not more, severe system which should protect the regime through the coming years.

President Hosni Mubarak on April 30 pushed a two-year extension of the emergency law through parliament. For 24 years this law enabled the government to detain prisoners indefinitely and without charge.

In asking parliament to approve the extension, PM Ahmad Nazif said the emergency law would eventually be replaced with a provision which focused only on terrorism, as Mubarak repeatedly promised during his re-election campaign in 2005. But, Nazif said, devising a new law will take time and Egypt could not afford to wait, with the emergency law set to expire at the end of May.

"We will never use the emergency law against the Egyptian people", Nazif said to the crowded parliamentary chamber, adding: "We will use it only to protect the citizens and face the terror cells which have not been quelled until now". But the extension was widely criticised by political opposition groups, human rights groups and ordinary citizens on the streets in Cairo, who said it showed the government was intent on protecting itself, not the people.

Officials had hinted days earlier that they would push for renewal, and so could not credibly claim the decision was in response to the three recent terrorist attacks in Sinai which left more than two dozen people dead and many more seriously injured.

The New York Times on April 30 quoted Dalia Sherif, "26, an unemployed college graduate, as she walked through the center of [Cairo]", as saying: "We are living in a country with no protection from the people who are supposed to secure us".

The extension provided another signal that the government had stalled - if not reversed - the commitment it had made towards increasing freedoms. Throughout his campaign in 2005, Mubarak promised he would promote more political freedom, work to amend the constitution to give more power to the parliament, help foster alternative political parties and replace the emergency law.

In July Mubarak said in a speech: "There is a need for a firm and decisive law which eliminates terrorism and uproots its threats. A law which protects national security and ensures stability. A law which provides a legislative substitute to combat terrorism and replaces the current emergency law".

A number of measures have been taken by the government since Mubarak's lopsided electoral victory in September 2005. With more than 88% of the votes cast, his government in late 2005 used its security forces to beat and shoot voters trying to cast ballots in parliamentary elections for opposition candidates.

The government has sentenced an opposition leader, Ayman Nour, to five years in prison. In that move Mubarak, despite US protests, made a mockery of George W. Bush's GME democratisation initiative, an initiative which now seems to be ignored in Washington as well as in the Arab world.

Then the government delayed by two years local elections. Later it sought to punish judges who charged fraud during past elections. The government denied requests to create new parties. On April 29 the authorities arrested several dozens of young men from opposition groups who had been hanging up signs reading "No for emergency law", and "Together against extension of the emergency law". It was said many of the youth were beaten up by police.

The emergency law was first passed in October 1981 in response to the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat. At its height, it was used to detain more than 30,000 prisoners indefinitely without charge. Mubarak has since had the law renewed every three years - and now human rights groups estimate that there are 15,000 uncharged prisoners in jails.

The law expressly allows the authorities to hold individuals for up to six months without being charged or tried. But in practice, legal experts say, the government goes through the motions of technically releasing prisoners after six months, and then re-arresting them, without ever having actually let them go.

In the parliament, Nazif's April 30 speech, and his offer of a two-year extension instead of the customary three years, was supported by the majority of MPs who belong to Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP has a monopoly on power in Egypt, and so it was a forgone conclusion that the law would be adopted. It passed with a vote of 237 to 91.

Nazif said: "We understand that the emergency law does not completely destroy terrorism. But it allows the security establishment to take the necessary measure to combat terrorism".

The opposition has found its way into the parliament. The largest block in the house includes 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were elected as independents in late 2005. On April 30 they stood in the parliamentary chamber wearing black sashes over their shoulders which called for an end to the emergency law.

Issam el-Erian, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was himself tried before a military judge for his work with the group, was on April 30 quoted as saying: "When I go out in the street I feel that the stick which the security [establishment] uses to hit me on the head for expressing my opinion is only there because of the emergency law".

El-Erian, who appears frequently in TV talk shows, added: "I could be arrested any time because of the emergency law. The government lies and uses terrorism to justify extending the law, but terrorism increased and flourished under the emergency law". The Muslim Brotherhood is technically banned. But it is tolerated by the government.

In a televised speech on April 27, Mubarak vowed to win the war against terrorism, saying: "Egypt's security and the safety of its people is a red line no one can cross. We will surround it, pull it out by the roots and dry up its sources. We will respond with the power of the law to any attempts to cause chaos, and Egypt will remain secure for all Egyptians".

Mubarak called on religious figures to spread a message of forgiveness, one which denounces extremism and violence. Referring to recent violence between Egypt's Muslim majority and the Christian Coptic minority, Mubarak lambasted the "forces of extremism and fanaticism", saying they were trying to "tear at the united fabric of the Egyptian society".

Egypt is in dire need of the reform which Mubarak promised during his 2005 campaign for a fifth six-year term. His promise was to be the cornerstone of a liberalisation policy meant to placate Bush, who had been promoting democratisation in the "Greater Middle East" (GME) as a formula for curing the rage and frustration - the spawning ponds of al-Qaeda and similar terrorist cults.

But quietly Bush has cooled his drive to liberalise Arab states. The successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the outright victory of the Brotherhood's Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, in balloting for the Palestinian Authority legislature seemed to shock Bush and his advisers. Suddenly they noticed that years of autocratic rule in much of the Arab world have emptied the political playing field of all serious competitors save the established elites and their Islamist foes.

Mubarak went back on his pledge because Bush ceased hectoring him to end his repressive ways. Bush's course correction reflects an incoherent American policy rooted in a super-ficial, highly ideological notion of political reality in the Arab world.

Last autumn, Bush and Egypt's Muslim Brothers demanded that the emergency law be cancelled as the first step for democratic reform. Although Bush and the Brotherhood had different reasons for opposing this law, they were both right to view it as the greatest obstacle to reform of a system which allows Mubarak and his inner circle to retain their monopoly on power.

The law allows for civilian cases to be heard by military courts. It makes it possible for the authorities to prevent or restrict free association and to curtail free speech which might be construed as harming Egypt's image abroad. It makes it possible for the police to break up public gatherings of more than five people.

It is the suppression of freedom which reduces the chances for Arab liberals to challenge both their rulers and the reactionary appeal of the Islamic militants, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The MB's Syrian chapter has become much stronger than it was in the early 1980s, when the Ba'thist dictator Hafez al-Assad massacred thousands of them. The MB is banned in Syria, where belonging to this group is a crime which carries capital punishment. The Syrian MB is engaged in a campaign to end the Damascus ban on the movement, as its following has been enlarged both in the urban and rural parts of the country. In its drive to topple the Ba'thist regime, this group is being helped by the Egyptian, Jordanian and other chapters of the MB.

Late in the evening of April 24, the south Sinai resort town of Dahab was the scene of a co-ordinated triple bombing which left at least 25 people dead and over 70 injured. Early in the morning of April 26, peacekeepers and Egyptian security officials in north Sinai were attacked on two separate occasions by Neo-Salafi suicide bombers, but the only casualties were the assailants themselves.

Interior Minister Habib el-Adly has drawn parallels between the recent attacks and the ones which took place in July 2005 in Sharm el-Shaikh, telling state TV: "The information we have indicates that [the perpetrators] are Sinai Bedouin, and the latest operations are linked to the previous attacks". Investigators then were running DNA tests on three bodies recovered from the Dahab scene to determine whether they were suicide bombers, or whether the blasts were caused by rigged explosives.

Late at night on April 26, Egyptian security forces arrested the Cairo bureau chief of al-Jazeera satellite channel, Hussein Abdel Ghani, on the grounds of "disseminating false news reports, making announcements of a provocative nature, misguiding public opinion, and disturbing the peace". According to the Interior Ministry, the arrest came in response to a false report broadcast on April 26 by al-Jazeera of the so-called third terrorist attack in Belbeis. Abdel Ghani described his arrest as "a complete police kidnapping operation - beyond the law".

Historically, terrorist attacks have had disastrous consequences for tourism in Egypt, but indirectly on the national economy as well. Over one million are employed in the Egyptian tourism industry. Employees in this sector are hopeful that despite the attacks business remains close to normal. Dahab's hotel occupancy rate remained high at around 80% on average in the following weeks. TUIGN and Thomas Cook, two of Europe's biggest tour operators, reported only a minor number of cancellations. The British government has avoided issuing a travel advisory for its citizens against going to Egypt.

The April 24 bomb explosions are yet another warning for Muslim states of the price they have to pay for being allies of the US. And Asia Times Online (ATO) on April 26 reported security experts as saying that "war on terror" outposts Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were prime targets. The April 24 blasts came within 24 hours of a message carried by al-Qaeda's head Osama bin Laden on al-Jazeera, in which he warned of a divide between the West and Islam. However, it is highly unlikely that the attacks were carried out by mainstream al-Qaeda; the more likely perpetrators are from a branch comprising Neo-Salafi takfiris - Sunni fanatics who brand non-practicing Muslims, Shi'ite and non-Muslims as infidels.

Bin Laden is personally opposed to attacks on Muslim countries which support the US, but al-Qaeda leaders such as Egyptian Abu Amro Abdul-Hakeem, also known as Shaikh Issa, and Mustafa Seerat al-Suri (now arrested) believe otherwise. Most takfiris come from families who were badly oppressed by various Egyptian regimes, ranging from those of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sadat to Mubarak's.

The takfiris have been offshoots of the MB and Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), and because of that they were victimised. They branded Egypt an infidel society and migrated to the Sinai Desert.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Date:May 15, 2006
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