‘Terror war’ begets devil’s bargains

President Bush’s “global war on terror” has produced the unintended consequence of bringing the US closer to some of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Egypt provides a classic example. Last week, over the objections of the country’s human rights advocates, Egypt extended the 20-year-old “emergency” law that gives the government power to arrest and detain people without charges, and refused to moderate its campaign to further compromise the independence of an already weak judiciary. These two developments provide insight into how the “war on terror” is consistently trumping moves toward good governance and civil society that could be powerful weapons against the very terrorists Egypt seeks to defeat.

Professor Samer Shehata of the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University said, “Democracy promotion and cooperation in the war on terrorism are often in conflict with one another.” “The US needs these regimes for intelligence on terrorist organisations”.

Following what many believe was a deeply flawed presidential election last year, Egypt’s judges’ demanded that they be allowed to investigate reports of widespread irregularities, violence towards voters and judges supervising the polls, and vote rigging. The government’s response was to strip six of the magistrates of their immunity from police questioning and thus open the door to criminal charges of defamation and insult.

Egypt first adopted its Emergency Law in 1981 in response to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and at its height was used to detain more than 30,000 prisoners indefinitely without charge. President Hosni Mubarak has had the law renewed every three years since. The law allows the authorities to hold individuals for up to six months without being charged or tried. But in practice, the government goes through the motions of technically releasing prisoners after six months, and then re-arresting them, without ever having let them go. In effect, the law is the fire blanket the government has thrown over all dissent, including press freedom.

During his presidential campaign — the first in the country’s history that allowed multiple candidates — Mubarak vowed repeatedly to repeal the state of emergency in favour of a new anti-terrorism law. He received the enthusiastic support of civil society and human rights groups and other professional organisations, and even members of the political opposition.

The Egyptian president’s response was to push a two-year extension of the emergency law through Parliament. The extension was widely supported by the majority of the members of parliament who belong to Mubarak’s governing National Democratic Party, which voted 237 to 91 in favour. The largest opposition block includes 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were elected as independents last year. They are calling for an end to the emergency law. The once militant Brotherhood has become Egypt’s voice of political Islam.

Bush has praised Egypt for its staunch support for the “war on terror”. He has expressed similar sentiments regarding other countries that have long histories as rights violators but that support his anti-terror campaign. These include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Libya, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Yemen, and others. — IPS