Egypt Cites US ‘Emergency Law’ To Defend Its Own

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

EGYPT/MUSLIMBROTHERHOODThe ill wind of political repression continues to blow in Egypt — earlier this week, the Egyptian government approved a two-year extension of an emergency law that’s been continuously in effect since 1981, despite repeated promises to repeal it. The emergency law lets the Egyptian government limit key freedoms, arrest people without charge, and hold prisoners in indefinite detention.

Extending emergency rule is the latest in the string of troubling moves by the Egyptian regime to crack down on political opposition and keep Egypt’s political space closed to alternatives, including a ban announced earlier this spring on Skype’s voice over Internet protocol, a move that the Project on Middle East Democracy‘s Lydia Khalil points out is about squelching dissent more than it may be about profits and bandwidth.

These disconcerting steps motivated me to join with a diverse group of people (some of whom I fundamentally disagree with on many other foreign policy issues) in signing this letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking that the United States pressure Egypt to clean up its act on human rights and democracy.

I’ve had a special fondness for Egypt ever since I studied Arabic there back in the 1990’s, and then later worked with brave Egyptians pushing for political reform when I was with the National Democratic Institute, long before the Freedom Agenda was even a glint in George W. Bush’s eye.

Why is it important to support political reform in Egypt now? A change in leadership appears on the horizon, and this presents an opening to move beyond our addiction to dictators and autocrats that has plagued the Middle East for decades. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s 82-year old president, has had health problems, and as Michael Wahid Hanna and others have recently warned, a possible succession struggle looms.

The Obama administration expressed its disappointment in the emergency law decision, but actions speak louder than words. What will the Obama administration do in the coming months as more Egyptians stand up for democracy and freedom? Will it stand behind the words that will be part of its forthcoming national security strategy that include supporting “universal values” around the world? Or will it follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, the Bush administration, whose signature “Freedom Agenda” is now regarded by many Egyptians as kalam fadi, empty words?

In reaction to mild statements of disappointment from the Obama administration about the emergency law renewal, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif compared the emergency law to America’s Patriot Act, saying the Egyptian government “was having difficulty finding the proper balance between protecting the nation and preserving civil liberties, comparing the challenge to President Obama’s difficulties in closing down the prison at Guantánamo Bay.”

As I noted in 2007 when I was in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad just as then-President Pervez Musharraf lifted a much shorter period of emergency rule, leaders around the world tend to follow America’s actions — and some autocrats had perfected the tricks of the trade by following the Bush administration’s example: Unilaterally declare executive powers because of extraordinary circumstances, seek to quell opponents by painting them as in the same camp as terrorists and flood the airwaves with a message of fear in a desperate attempt to cover up what has been essentially a pretty poor record at bringing terrorists to justice. The Bush administration followed that approach for many years, using the war on terror as an excuse to trample on basic rights at home, making the freedom agenda seem all the more hollow.

On Egypt, the Obama administration will have an opportunity in the coming year to make up for the past mistakes of several previous administrations. Will President Obama stand by the words he expressed in his Cairo speech last year — his “unyielding belief” that people yearn for basic rights and freedoms — and that his administration will “support them everywhere”? Egypt is going to be an important test case — and most Egyptians are hoping that these words weren’t just more kalam fadi from another American president.