Earlier this week, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party held its annual conference, which closed with President Hosni Mubarak’s declaring that Egypt is “on the road to reform and development.” Naturally, not everyone agreed with his assessment. Given political conditions in Egypt, however, only a small group of protesters braved the ever-looming threat of violent crackdowns to protest the conference, where they were typically outnumbered four-to-one by armored riot police.
Restraints on freedoms of speech and association have been well-documented in Egypt, deplored by everyone from Condoleezza Rice to the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet there is one area in which speech in Egypt is remarkably free: vilification of Israel. In limiting the scope of free speech to this small area, Egypt has built a potent strategy for deterring Western efforts to promote greater liberty.
Consider the recent history of the Kifaya movement, which spearheaded the mass protests in 2005 that paved the way towards theoretically competitive—though ultimately rigged—elections that September. But after the elections, as a consequence of disappointing results and the absence of a unifying platform, Kifaya quickly fizzled.
That is, until last autumn, when Kifaya returned to international headlines emboldened by its new campaign: to collect one million signatures in support of annulling Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. To many commentators, Kifaya’s actions—coupled with the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral successes—indicated that the United States faced a tradeoff between promoting democracy and maintaining stability in the region, and that U.S. interests might be served best by sticking with a reliable authoritarian regime. Indeed, this is exactly what the Bush administration ultimately did, virtually eliminating democracy-talk from its Egypt agenda earlier this year.
This rapid shift away from the democracy agenda, however, sent a troubling signal to the Egyptian regime: that it would take remarkably little to distract Washington from promoting liberalization. Mubarak had thus stumbled across a new strategy: conditioning Egyptian dissidents to organize for anti-Western causes rather than their own civil liberties. This strategy undermines domestic opposition while deterring American democratizing pressures.
The vocal student outcry against academic exchanges with Israel at American University in Cairo, which I reported on Wednesday, is a prime example of this strategy’s successful implementation. I happen to know one of the protest’s foremost organizers—for his security, I’ll call him Muhammad—who had previously been active in liberal anti-government protests. But, after a harrowing experience in March 2007, he swore off these protests. While distributing pamphlets opposing constitutional amendments that would restrict parties’ electoral participation, Muhammad was arrested, thrown in the back of an armored police vehicle, and driven out to the desert, where he was held with seven colleagues for twenty-four hours. During that period, he was given little water and fed one small container of macaroni; when he had to use the bathroom, he urinated in the empty container. He was later released in the desert and, after finding his way back to Cairo, learned that he had lost his teaching job.
Yet in the uproar against academic exchanges with Israelis, Muhammad has found a new outlet for organizing. In an e-mail sent to me earlier this week, he argued against these exchanges until Israel recognizes Palestinian rights. As I responded, it is saddening to compare the ease with which he protests for Palestinian rights to the difficulties he faces in advocating for his own.