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Egypt Sees U.S. Going Cairo's Way

Mideast: Washington's extradition of a man convicted of conspiring in Anwar Sadat's assassination is viewed by many as validation.

July 10, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — For five years, the United States steadfastly refused to send Nabil Soliman back to Egypt, where he had been convicted in absentia of helping assassinate President Anwar Sadat.

U.S. law prohibits deporting anyone to a country where prisoners might be tortured. But last month, Soliman landed in Cairo and was handed over for a retrial on charges connected with the 1981 slaying.

What changed? U.S. officials say Egypt promised not to torture the man. But many here say that U.S. priorities changed, not Egypt's intentions.

"After Sept. 11, the Egyptian government became very happy," said Hafez abu Saeda, general secretary of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "Western countries and the U.S. have begun to cooperate with Egyptian security."

In fact, when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo announced that Soliman--who had been held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service--had been returned, U.S. Ambassador C. David Welch said in a statement that it was "another example of the close U.S.-Egyptian cooperation in the war against terror."

Regardless of whether people in the Arab world accept or reject U.S. policies, and most would say they fall into the negative camp, America has long served as a model of due process and the rule of law.

Many people here had hoped that those characteristics would someday rub off on Egypt, a nation the U.S. calls "moderate" and local human rights activists describe as an authoritarian police state.

But in the post-Sept. 11 world, with the U.S. contemplating military tribunals for civilians, limiting civil rights of suspects and demonstrating a new willingness to deport fugitives such as Soliman, many here see the U.S. as coming more into line with the justice systems of the developing world rather than the other way around.

Though U.S. officials say they have only tinkered at the margins of their nation's civil liberties, the actions threaten to reverberate throughout Egypt.

The government of President Hosni Mubarak appears to view the U.S. moves as validating its approach to running Egypt. In fact, the main government spokesman seems almost giddy when he talks about the way the United States once criticized Egypt's human rights record, especially its propensity for putting civilians in front of state security courts.

"Now in America, you are putting only non-Americans in front of military courts," said Nabil Osman, the spokesman. "Here, we don't discriminate."

Farid Zahran has been outspoken since his student days in Cairo in the 1970s, when he was repeatedly arrested and jailed for promoting leftist ideologies. Even after Mubarak declared a state of emergency in 1981 to help fight the Islamic extremists who had slain Sadat, Zahran continued to criticize the system.

But Zahran says he had never experienced anything like what happened to him Sept. 20, when he was arrested, interrogated for seven hours and then held for two weeks in solitary confinement. His offense was helping to organize an anti-American demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy on Sept. 10.

"When I was arrested, they were screaming, 'This is a terrorist, this is a terrorist!' " he recalled. "It is the fashion of the moment."

And who does Zahran blame for his rough treatment? America. Since Sept. 11, Egypt has clamped down on public gatherings and demonstrations--and, according to human rights groups, detained hundreds of Islamic fundamentalists.

In what may seem an unfair yet predictable twist, Egypt's post-Sept. 11 clampdown has only increased the widespread resentment of America. Many Egyptians think that the U.S. is supporting a regime that crushes dissenting voices and limits individual liberties because to do so suits Washington's interests. They see a double standard in President Bush's demand that the Palestinians overhaul a system in which power is in the hands of "an unaccountable few."

"I doubt the U.S. really wants democracy around the world," said Mohammed Zarei, 37, a lawyer who founded the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners and has also been arrested, imprisoned and tortured for his political views. "If there was democracy in Egypt, and people would be free to choose, probably [Mubarak's party] would not be in power. The Islamists would control parliament and government, and that is against what America wants."

Egypt has been battling Islamic extremists for decades. When Sadat was president, he supported and encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood, a relatively moderate Islamic political party that has operated in the region for decades, on the theory that the movement would counter Communists and leftists.

When Islamic fundamentalists gunned down Sadat, his successor, Mubarak, outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and imposed the state of emergency.

Twenty years later, Mubarak's Egypt is still in a state of emergency, a condition that even the U.S. acknowledges restricts "many basic rights."

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