IN less than a month, the Egyptian government has hanged 14 of its Islamic opponents, an act that has no parallel in Egypt's modern history. This is an alarming escalation in the government fight against the Islamists that could prove fatal for the stability of the nation, especially in the current tense atmosphere, in which international issues are inextricably entangled with local grievances.
The Egyptian government's insistence on linking its domestic opposition with the World Trade Center bombing, and its escalating human rights violations make continued United States support for the Mubarak regime morally and politically troubling.
To many in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak appears to have a desire to be "president for life," as witnessed by his insistence on appointing himself to another term and refusing to allow anyone to oppose him. He has been in power since the Sadat assassination in 1981. During those 12 years, the country has been ruled by a handful of military and security people who justified eliminating their opponents by citing emergency laws that forbid all political demonstrations or formation of new political parties.
Security police have the authority to detain suspects without charges or trial.
The human rights violations occur in all regions and at all levels, which have further alienated the Egyptian public. Currently, most regional governors in Egypt are ex-military and security officers. Even the current minister of information, Safwat Alshereef, was the head of the Mukhabarat (the secret police), which both Egyptian and international human rights organizations hold responsible for the torture of thousands of political prisoners. And perhaps this is the primary reason that he was the target
of an assassination attempt for which five Islamists have just been hanged.
In addition to the brutality of the regime, the majority of Egyptians are outraged by its unbridled corruption. Mubarak and sons, as Egptians critics have dubbed the president and his two sons, Ala and Gamal, have been accused of not only taking advantage of their position to amass great wealth (estimated at $1.8 billion), but also of directly skimming money from the Egptian treasury and American aid.
Gamal Mubarak is allegedly using the international embargo on Libya to enrich himself by acting as Muammar Qaddafi's international commercial representative. The other son, Ala, a London-based businessman, is selling Egypt's debt to investors and financers. In the minds of many Egptians, this is reminiscent of the money squandering that led to the loss of the Suez Canal to Western financers from 1879 to 1956. Whether these accusations are accurate or not, the widespread belief of the regime's utter corru ption incites even ordinary Egyptians to take to the streets.
Demonstrators carrying signs denouncing government practices have been fired upon with live ammunition. Until recently these demonstrations were confined to Cairo. But on July 23 anti-government demonstrations erupted in the northern city of Damanhour. Government response to the demonstrators was swift. Police opened fire, wounding dozens of unarmed protesters. Then they rounded up hundreds of others for interrogation, which under the current Egyptian regime frequently includes torture.
This government action has been met by criticism from human rights organizations, especially the Cairo-based Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. The criticism was directed at the unconstitutionality of sentences handed down by the military court, since the Egyptian constitution bars civilians from being tried in military courts that do not allow appeals. The government made the unconstitutional move after civilian courts consistently acquitted accused subversives despite government pressure. In addit ion, in a letter to the Peoples Assembly, the members of Egypt's Organization for Human Rights expressed fear for their safety.
These are significant developments in the rapidly changing Egyptian situation. A demonstration in the northern city of Damanhour is worthy of special attention. Unlike previous demonstrations in Assyut, the Damanhour demonstrators were not radical students, but farmers and workers who were disgusted both by what is happening to their fellow Muslims in Bosnia and by the hangings of Muslims in their own country, especially since the latter might not have been guilty of terrorism but of merely opposing the regime.
Furthermore, the Damanhour incident suggests that not only the southern part of Egypt is dissatisfied with the government policies; the northern provinces are disaffected, too. Thus the conflict is widening beyond Cairo, where government resources are concentrated, and moving to the provinces, where government troops are outnumbered by tightly-organized communities, which are likely to see the killing of any of their members in terms of the local rules of blood feuds rather than in political terms. This can make the manageability of the Egyptian situation more difficult than many analysts have imagined. Furthermore, the widening of the conflict from Cairo to the provinces is a sign that Egypt has crossed a significant threshold from pre-crisis to crisis.
Other legal political parties are similarly labeled. The only group with an ideology that could mobilize millions is the Islamists.
Many Egyptians dissatisfied with the current situation are on the sidelines, waiting to see who wins the political struggle. It appears certain that it is not likely to be Mr. Mubarak. America's continued financial and political support for his regime makes many Egyptians see the US as collaborating in his oppressive policies.