Arabs fight Islamists, with few rules

With US criticism of abuses waning since Sept. 11, Tunisia and Egypt are attacking militants, political groups.

Over the course of his eight years in prison, Lassaad Jaouhari was, he says, subjected to the full spectrum of Tunisia's torture treatments.

First there was the simple "rotisserie," in which he was tied up in a ball and suspended between two tables while being turned like a chicken on a spit. Then there was "the bath," in which he was hung upside down from the ceiling by a motor chain as his head was dipped in a disgusting liquid mixture. In all there were dozens of ingenious techniques and devices used on him in an old French colonial army barracks where he was held between 1991 and 1998.

Accused of membership in the illegal Islamic Movement Ennahdha, Mr. Jaouhari, a Francophone intellectual whose wife is a university professor in Tunis, says the torture – which left him walking with a cane – has not dampened his political aspirations.

Now that he is out of prison, he says that he hopes his group can participate in Tunisia's government. He is, however, still officially forbidden from working or travel- ing outside of his own country. Tunisia's harsh "anti-terror" methods are not unlike those of its larger North African Arab brother, Egypt, whose round-ups of terror suspects and mass trials for them in military tribunals are an infamous annual event in Cairo. The Egyptian courts ban appeals and open the door to "circumstantial evidence," that would be tossed out of most Western courtrooms, say human rights activists.

Authoritarian regimes in both Egypt and Tunisia have for years used their own "wars against terror" to restrict civil liberties and abuse human rights, say Western diplomats and rights activists in the Middle East, Europe, and the US.

A year ago at this time, British and American diplomats peppered their discussions of Arab regimes with a longstanding concern for human rights. But after Sept. 11, they more often praise Egypt and Tunisia for antiterror efforts than criticize them for their less-than-perfect human-rights records.

"I can say – in a general sense – that Egypt's legal procedures have improved due to cooperation with the West since the attacks," says a Western official in Cairo, who monitors human rights. She asserts that her country's criticism of Egyptian roundups of terror suspects has been tempered by the US and allied military efforts to do the same thing in Afghanistan.

But some observers say tough roundups can make the problem worse.

"It is not an easy equation," says Joe Stork, a regional expert for the New York- and London-based Human Rights Watch. "But we certainly think there is a connection between repression and terror, as difficult as it is to specify and prove. There is probably a good reason that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two highly repressive states, produce so many international terrorists."

Both Egyptian and Tunisian officials give impassioned defenses of their efforts to fight terror with their own rules in their own backyards. Bechir Tekari, Tunisia's minister of justice, says his country has fought what he calls "fanaticism" since the early '90s. "In our country, we have Islam as a state religion, but all forms of violence and fanaticism associated with religion are punished," he explains in his office, which buzzes with German and French investigators. The police are keen to help Tunisia determine who was responsible for a mysterious suicide bombing of a Jewish synagogue on the island of Djerba April 11, which killed 20 people, including 13 German tourists.

Mr. Tekari says his country's own fight against religious extremism is being conducted on four levels.

"In the Constitution, religion is excluded as the base for any political party. Culturally and educationally, we are teaching the young the idea of tolerance of other cultures and religions. On an economic and social level, we have recognized that fanaticism and violence grow from poverty, and we have developed programs to raise the economic standards. Finally, on the judicial front, we introduced terrorism as a crime back in 1993."

The Tunisian government's definition of "terrorism," a bone of contention with Tunisian human-rights groups who claim it is purposefully vague, includes attacks on people as well as "intimidation."

The justice minister says that "intimidation" means "exercising moral pressure or menacing a person's integrity."

A new law in Tunisia, still in the making, would back UN Security Council resolutions adopted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, says Mr. Tekari.

The US government's recent human rights report on Tunisia, however, appears to confirm the allegations similar to that of Mr. Jaouhari, the Islamist who spent eight years in prison.

One prisoner, Ali Mansouri, who had both his legs amputated in April 2000 as a result of such mistreatment, eventually won a case against his torturers and received $210,000 in compensation.

"I can assure you that we closely monitor the prisons each day, including the health conditions of prisoners, the relationship between guards and prisoners, and reports of abuse," says Tekari.

In an interview last week, Tekari also cited the example of Mr. Mansouri as proof that Tunisia does pay attention to prison abuses.

But across so-called "moderate" Arab states, Islamic groups, many fighting for the implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, in their homelands, insist that there is an irrefutable connection between government repression and what they refer to as the coming "storm."

Muhammad M. Al-Hudaibi, the second-in-command of Egypt's largest Islamic political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, predicts a spontaneous revolution that will soon spell the end for most Western-backed regimes in the Arab world, including the one in Egypt.

"Nobody can be sure just when the explosion will come," insists Mr. Al-Hudaibi. "When the revolution comes, it won't be directed by organized people leading street demonstrations. It is simply a matter of the repression and the political pressures becoming too great."

This "backlash" won't result in terror, only justice and real democracy, he insists.

For Egypt, this year's US human-rights report states that "in combating terrorism, the [Egyptian] security forces continued to mistreat and torture prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, hold those arrested in prolonged pretrial detention, and occasionally engage in mass arrests."

Though Tunisian Islamists contend that there is no bloody civil war brewing as a result of political repression, in Egypt the story is much more complicated. Several new Islamic groups have sprung up in Egypt in the past year. Last May, several dozen members of a group called "The Promise" were arrested for taking up donations for Chechen and Palestinian militant groups. The group was also charged with conspiring to attack the government, charges Western diplomats closely monitoring the trial say are unsubstantiated.

Still, these same diplomats are reluctant to criticize Egypt's antiterror efforts as harshly as they did in years past.

When Hosni Mubarak visited the White House earlier this year, US President George W. Bush praised his Egyptian counterpart for promoting an "open society."

Similarly, Western diplomats generally praise President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as a firm ally in the war against terror, despite his near-complete ban on opposition political party activities.

Mr. Stork, the Human Rights Watch officer based in Washington, says that a new laissez-faire Western attitude toward rights abuse in the Middle East as a result of the new war against terror is leading the world down a dangerous road.

"It gravely compromises the political attractiveness of the United States for those citizens in the Middle East interested in human rights and democracy," he says.

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