Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mubarak government

What Drove the Pro-Government Forces into Cairo’s Streets

On the face of it, it makes no sense. For a week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed anti-government protesters to go unchallenged by his supporters, virtually taking over Cairo’s streets as his loyal army watched. Yesterday, Mubarak made a huge concession to his opponents by pledging not to “run” for re-election to Egypt’s presidency this fall, though that move did not appease his critics. Then this morning, the world awoke to the sight of a massive pro-Mubarak force moving into Cairo to challenge the anti-government forces. Why, many of us are asking, would Mubarak wait so long to unleash his backers? Why would he do so after already making it clear he wanted to avoid violence and had then promised to leave office?

While it is difficult to know exactly what is going on there, it may be that Mubarak’s announcement is exactly what set off this counter-demonstration.

While we tend to think of the Mubarak government as a matter of a small elite, it takes a great many people to run even an autocracy like Egypt. The president’s National Democratic Party may be neither national in scope nor even remotely democratic, but it is a very large entity, and the government bureaucracy that it controls is huge. While Egypt is a poor country with many millions living in abject poverty, and with even most university graduates lacking jobs, those who benefit from the ruling party’s largesse make up a considerable number of people.

Perhaps Mubarak is pulling the strings of these counter-protests, but it is by no means unlikely that those who run the governing party and its rank and file were panicked by his announcement yesterday and decided to act to pre-empt a change in government before it is too late. Though most Egyptians may be thrilled by the prospect of a regime change, the not inconsiderable minority that lives off that regime sees this as a threat to their livelihoods if not their lives. They may well prefer that blood run in the streets of their capital than be forced out of their government jobs. Mubarak and his family have the option of leaving the country and living in a comfortable exile; his supporters do not. So it is understandable, if regrettable, that they would resort to street violence rather than simply accept the likelihood that they will soon be out of a job and perhaps joining the hundreds of thousands of homeless living in Cairo’s cemeteries.

On the face of it, it makes no sense. For a week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed anti-government protesters to go unchallenged by his supporters, virtually taking over Cairo’s streets as his loyal army watched. Yesterday, Mubarak made a huge concession to his opponents by pledging not to “run” for re-election to Egypt’s presidency this fall, though that move did not appease his critics. Then this morning, the world awoke to the sight of a massive pro-Mubarak force moving into Cairo to challenge the anti-government forces. Why, many of us are asking, would Mubarak wait so long to unleash his backers? Why would he do so after already making it clear he wanted to avoid violence and had then promised to leave office?

While it is difficult to know exactly what is going on there, it may be that Mubarak’s announcement is exactly what set off this counter-demonstration.

While we tend to think of the Mubarak government as a matter of a small elite, it takes a great many people to run even an autocracy like Egypt. The president’s National Democratic Party may be neither national in scope nor even remotely democratic, but it is a very large entity, and the government bureaucracy that it controls is huge. While Egypt is a poor country with many millions living in abject poverty, and with even most university graduates lacking jobs, those who benefit from the ruling party’s largesse make up a considerable number of people.

Perhaps Mubarak is pulling the strings of these counter-protests, but it is by no means unlikely that those who run the governing party and its rank and file were panicked by his announcement yesterday and decided to act to pre-empt a change in government before it is too late. Though most Egyptians may be thrilled by the prospect of a regime change, the not inconsiderable minority that lives off that regime sees this as a threat to their livelihoods if not their lives. They may well prefer that blood run in the streets of their capital than be forced out of their government jobs. Mubarak and his family have the option of leaving the country and living in a comfortable exile; his supporters do not. So it is understandable, if regrettable, that they would resort to street violence rather than simply accept the likelihood that they will soon be out of a job and perhaps joining the hundreds of thousands of homeless living in Cairo’s cemeteries.

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Smart-Power Whiplash

During her Senate confirmation hearing in January of 2009, Hillary Clinton described smart power — her preferred approach to American foreign policy — as “picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” Two years later, we’re finally getting a sense of what this means. Recent events and statements have been clarifying.

When the situation is a conference on democracy, the right tool is a pro-democracy statement. Thus Clinton said to the attendees at this year’s Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar, “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. . . . The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

But when the situation is an actual and potentially democratic Arab revolt, the right tool is fence-sitting. When Clinton was asked for her thoughts on the popular uprising against the corrupt regime in Tunisia, she said, “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.”

When the situation is the announcement of planned elections after said uprising, the right tool is, once again, a pro-democracy statement. Today, after Clinton spoke with Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane and interim Tunisian leader Mohammed Ghannouchi, she told the press, “I’m encouraged by the direction that they are setting towards inclusive elections that will be held as soon as practicable.”

But when the situation is once again a potentially democratic Arab uprising, the right tool is urging restraint and giving cover to the repressive Arab regime being opposed. Today thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to protest the Mubarak government, and Reuters reports the following: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged all sides in Egypt to exercise restraint following street protests and said she believed the Egyptian government was stable and looking for ways to respond to its people’s aspirations.”

For those playing along at home, that’s defending democracy and Hosni Mubarak in the same day. Imagine how difficult it would be to practice smart power if you actually believed in something.

During her Senate confirmation hearing in January of 2009, Hillary Clinton described smart power — her preferred approach to American foreign policy — as “picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” Two years later, we’re finally getting a sense of what this means. Recent events and statements have been clarifying.

When the situation is a conference on democracy, the right tool is a pro-democracy statement. Thus Clinton said to the attendees at this year’s Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar, “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. . . . The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

But when the situation is an actual and potentially democratic Arab revolt, the right tool is fence-sitting. When Clinton was asked for her thoughts on the popular uprising against the corrupt regime in Tunisia, she said, “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.”

When the situation is the announcement of planned elections after said uprising, the right tool is, once again, a pro-democracy statement. Today, after Clinton spoke with Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane and interim Tunisian leader Mohammed Ghannouchi, she told the press, “I’m encouraged by the direction that they are setting towards inclusive elections that will be held as soon as practicable.”

But when the situation is once again a potentially democratic Arab uprising, the right tool is urging restraint and giving cover to the repressive Arab regime being opposed. Today thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to protest the Mubarak government, and Reuters reports the following: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged all sides in Egypt to exercise restraint following street protests and said she believed the Egyptian government was stable and looking for ways to respond to its people’s aspirations.”

For those playing along at home, that’s defending democracy and Hosni Mubarak in the same day. Imagine how difficult it would be to practice smart power if you actually believed in something.

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Outreach to Egypt?

The Obami, sensitive to accusations that they have been slothful on human rights, recently held a meeting with activists and foreign policy gurus on how they might promote democracy in Egypt. (Perhaps not giving the regime $1.5B free and clear would be a start.) But while the Obama team is having meetings, the Mubarak government is continuing its thuggish tactics:

Egypt’s parliamentary elections Sunday have been ushered in by one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago, with the government seemingly determined to shut out its top rival, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign events by Brotherhood candidates – even attacking the movement’s top member in parliament in his car. More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested during the election campaign.

The measures have been so dramatic that a judge in an administrative court in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria late on Wednesday ordered elections to be halted in at least 10 out of 11 city districts because so many candidates, particularly from the Brotherhood, had been disqualified by authorities.

This, quite plainly, is yet another snub of Obama personally. Just as the North Koreans see no downside to attacking its neighbor, Mubarak expects no adverse consequences from snubbing the U.S. president. Eli Lake observes:

Cairo’s snubbing of Mr. Obama follows the U.S. president’s run of hard luck in general on Middle East diplomacy. This month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected Mr. Obama’s personal request to relinquish the presidency. In 2009, the Iranian government rejected multiple offers from Mr. Obama to resume direct negotiations.

The mood from official Cairo was captured in a front-page editorial this week in the state-run and -funded newspaper, Al-Ahram, which often serves as a weather vane for the thinking inside the Mubarak regime.

“America and its experts should know and realize the Egyptian leadership role,” al-Ahram’s editor, Osama Saraya, said in the editorial. “Egypt has played and plays an important role in matters of regional peace and security … and is capable of bringing regional stability to all the areas that are regressing due to wrong U.S. policies in Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. … The United States is the one that ought to listen to Egypt, and not the other way around.”

In other words, the least-effective human rights policy in decades has contributed to the most egregious human right violations in decades and exposed our lack of influence in the region. We should not be surprised nor should we underestimate the degree to which Obama’s policy is both morally feckless and strategically flawed. Egypt is a tinderbox, increasingly polarized between an authoritarian government and the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Egyptian democracy activists are disillusioned by the American administration.

We might try some real Muslim Outreach — a policy of increased support for democratizers, financial support for Egypt conditioned on progress on human rights, and forceful public rhetoric (rather than the mute routine Hillary put on during the foreign minister’s recent visit). The problem with Muslim Outreach is not that we are doing it but that we are doing it so badly. And in the process, we’re proving that America is declining in influence in the region.

The Obami, sensitive to accusations that they have been slothful on human rights, recently held a meeting with activists and foreign policy gurus on how they might promote democracy in Egypt. (Perhaps not giving the regime $1.5B free and clear would be a start.) But while the Obama team is having meetings, the Mubarak government is continuing its thuggish tactics:

Egypt’s parliamentary elections Sunday have been ushered in by one of the most sweeping campaigns to silence critics since President Hosni Mubarak came to power nearly 30 years ago, with the government seemingly determined to shut out its top rival, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, police and armed gangs have broken up campaign events by Brotherhood candidates – even attacking the movement’s top member in parliament in his car. More than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been arrested during the election campaign.

The measures have been so dramatic that a judge in an administrative court in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria late on Wednesday ordered elections to be halted in at least 10 out of 11 city districts because so many candidates, particularly from the Brotherhood, had been disqualified by authorities.

This, quite plainly, is yet another snub of Obama personally. Just as the North Koreans see no downside to attacking its neighbor, Mubarak expects no adverse consequences from snubbing the U.S. president. Eli Lake observes:

Cairo’s snubbing of Mr. Obama follows the U.S. president’s run of hard luck in general on Middle East diplomacy. This month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected Mr. Obama’s personal request to relinquish the presidency. In 2009, the Iranian government rejected multiple offers from Mr. Obama to resume direct negotiations.

The mood from official Cairo was captured in a front-page editorial this week in the state-run and -funded newspaper, Al-Ahram, which often serves as a weather vane for the thinking inside the Mubarak regime.

“America and its experts should know and realize the Egyptian leadership role,” al-Ahram’s editor, Osama Saraya, said in the editorial. “Egypt has played and plays an important role in matters of regional peace and security … and is capable of bringing regional stability to all the areas that are regressing due to wrong U.S. policies in Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. … The United States is the one that ought to listen to Egypt, and not the other way around.”

In other words, the least-effective human rights policy in decades has contributed to the most egregious human right violations in decades and exposed our lack of influence in the region. We should not be surprised nor should we underestimate the degree to which Obama’s policy is both morally feckless and strategically flawed. Egypt is a tinderbox, increasingly polarized between an authoritarian government and the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Egyptian democracy activists are disillusioned by the American administration.

We might try some real Muslim Outreach — a policy of increased support for democratizers, financial support for Egypt conditioned on progress on human rights, and forceful public rhetoric (rather than the mute routine Hillary put on during the foreign minister’s recent visit). The problem with Muslim Outreach is not that we are doing it but that we are doing it so badly. And in the process, we’re proving that America is declining in influence in the region.

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FPI Conference (Part 2): Defending the Indefensible

Jackson Diehl moderated a panel on the administration’s human-rights policy. A human-rights activist from Burma (Win Min), Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Amb. Michael Kozak from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, politely discussed the Obama administration’s dismal record. The crowd, filled with human-rights activists and scholars, reacted with restraint and even sympathy to Kozak’s plight: he was there to defend the indefensible and to take arrows for the administration. He is a well-traveled and respected foreign-policy figure and emerged with his reputation intact. The administration’s reputation is another matter.

Kozak stated the case: the administration cares deeply about human rights. Obama talked about it at the UN, is actively discussing democracy promotion in Egypt, and has joined the UN Human Rights Council to “speak truth” and engage on human rights. His fellow panelists were cordial but, to put it mildly, skeptical. The crowd sat in stony silence.

Win Min spoke with optimism about the recent release of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest but explained this was an effort to “deflect criticism” from the recent elections, which the U.S. and the West have roundly condemned. He urged the administration to step up sanctions, not relax them.

Dunne was quite tough on the administration. She reminded the audience that the Bush administration had made considerable progress on democracy in Egypt, but the perception now is that Egypt has been dropped or severely downgraded by the Obama team. She wryly noted that, after all, we have given the Mubarak government $1.5 billion in aid without any improvement, and indeed some deterioration, of human rights in that country. In the Q&A, Dunne was even more blunt. She accused the Obama team of coming into office with an “anything-but-Bush” mentality that derided the Bush freedom agenda. She explained that only now is the administration beginning to treat democracy promotion with seriousness, but having frittered away nearly two years, the administration is “behind zero.”

What could Kozak say? Well, he tried his best. We really are talking to Egypt about democracy, and although Hillary Clinton didn’t mention human rights or democracy promotion last week in her news conference with the foreign minister, we have to understand there are lots of issues on the table. On Iran, where was the administration with respect to the Green Revolution? Well, there was a concern that it would be like Hungary in 1956 — we’d encourage people to take to the streets but not be able to help them. (But weren’t they already in the streets?)

The problem with the administration’s human-rights policy lies not with the dedicated professionals charged with carrying it out. The problem is the president — who occasionally talks a good game but, when the chips are down, relegates human rights to the bottom of the list. Until there is a new president, Kozak’s job won’t get any easier.

After the session, I asked Kozak if the administration was conducting any evaluation of its decision to participate in the UN Human Rights Council. Weren’t we doing more harm than good by legitimizing the thugocracies? He smiled. He paused. No, there wasn’t any talk like that. But we had taken away the argument that the UNHRC is dysfunctional because we weren’t there! (Umm, so now it’s dysfunction with us there?) We’re going to see if we can make it better. One suspected that even he didn’t buy that answer.

Jackson Diehl moderated a panel on the administration’s human-rights policy. A human-rights activist from Burma (Win Min), Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Amb. Michael Kozak from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, politely discussed the Obama administration’s dismal record. The crowd, filled with human-rights activists and scholars, reacted with restraint and even sympathy to Kozak’s plight: he was there to defend the indefensible and to take arrows for the administration. He is a well-traveled and respected foreign-policy figure and emerged with his reputation intact. The administration’s reputation is another matter.

Kozak stated the case: the administration cares deeply about human rights. Obama talked about it at the UN, is actively discussing democracy promotion in Egypt, and has joined the UN Human Rights Council to “speak truth” and engage on human rights. His fellow panelists were cordial but, to put it mildly, skeptical. The crowd sat in stony silence.

Win Min spoke with optimism about the recent release of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest but explained this was an effort to “deflect criticism” from the recent elections, which the U.S. and the West have roundly condemned. He urged the administration to step up sanctions, not relax them.

Dunne was quite tough on the administration. She reminded the audience that the Bush administration had made considerable progress on democracy in Egypt, but the perception now is that Egypt has been dropped or severely downgraded by the Obama team. She wryly noted that, after all, we have given the Mubarak government $1.5 billion in aid without any improvement, and indeed some deterioration, of human rights in that country. In the Q&A, Dunne was even more blunt. She accused the Obama team of coming into office with an “anything-but-Bush” mentality that derided the Bush freedom agenda. She explained that only now is the administration beginning to treat democracy promotion with seriousness, but having frittered away nearly two years, the administration is “behind zero.”

What could Kozak say? Well, he tried his best. We really are talking to Egypt about democracy, and although Hillary Clinton didn’t mention human rights or democracy promotion last week in her news conference with the foreign minister, we have to understand there are lots of issues on the table. On Iran, where was the administration with respect to the Green Revolution? Well, there was a concern that it would be like Hungary in 1956 — we’d encourage people to take to the streets but not be able to help them. (But weren’t they already in the streets?)

The problem with the administration’s human-rights policy lies not with the dedicated professionals charged with carrying it out. The problem is the president — who occasionally talks a good game but, when the chips are down, relegates human rights to the bottom of the list. Until there is a new president, Kozak’s job won’t get any easier.

After the session, I asked Kozak if the administration was conducting any evaluation of its decision to participate in the UN Human Rights Council. Weren’t we doing more harm than good by legitimizing the thugocracies? He smiled. He paused. No, there wasn’t any talk like that. But we had taken away the argument that the UNHRC is dysfunctional because we weren’t there! (Umm, so now it’s dysfunction with us there?) We’re going to see if we can make it better. One suspected that even he didn’t buy that answer.

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Does the Administration Mean What It Now Says About Human Rights?

Obama and his secretary of state are making some effort to step up — or start, some would say — support for human rights. Obama spoke on the topic at the UN. Albeit too little and too late, the administration is taking action against Iranian human rights abuses:

Citing “mounting evidence” of repression of the Iranian opposition, the Obama administration added more sanctions against Iranian government officials, members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and others accused by the United States of being responsible for human rights abuses.

The sanctions, announced Wednesday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, block the assets of, and prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in any business with, those on the list, which includes the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the country’s prosecutor general, and the ministers of welfare and intelligence.

There’s less here than meets the eye, however. As the Washington Post editors note, ” The high-profile announcement could give important encouragement to Iran’s opposition. But it’s worth noting that the sanctions themselves were recently mandated by Congress.” Oh. And why haven’t we committed ourselves to full support for the Green movement?

The real proof of the Obama administration’s devotion to democracy promotion will come with clear and decisive action. When do we adopt regime change as our official policy? When do we call it quits and pull the financial plug on the UNHRC? These would demonstrate actual, rather than rhetorical, support for human rights.

The Post editors observe that there’s another opportunity to prove the administration’s bona fides on human rights. Why not take action against the repressive Mubarak government, which is in the process of rigging another election?

[A] resolution authored by Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) has won broad and bipartisan support. The resolution urges Mr. Mubarak’s regime “to take all steps necessary to ensure that upcoming elections are free, fair, transparent and credible, including granting independent international and domestic electoral observers unrestricted access.” …

After the president’s last meeting with Mr. Mubarak this month, a White House summary said Mr. Obama had referred to the need for “credible and transparent elections in Egypt.” The question is whether the administration is willing to take action in support of its words. So far, it has offered no indication that Mr. Mubarak’s failure to accept election observers will result in any consequence for a country that receives $1.5 billion annually in American aid. Nor has the White House offered support for the Senate resolution, in public or in private. It could, at least, do that.

Let’s see what the Obama administration does. Frankly, the president’s words don’t carry all that much credibility these days.

Obama and his secretary of state are making some effort to step up — or start, some would say — support for human rights. Obama spoke on the topic at the UN. Albeit too little and too late, the administration is taking action against Iranian human rights abuses:

Citing “mounting evidence” of repression of the Iranian opposition, the Obama administration added more sanctions against Iranian government officials, members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and others accused by the United States of being responsible for human rights abuses.

The sanctions, announced Wednesday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, block the assets of, and prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in any business with, those on the list, which includes the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the country’s prosecutor general, and the ministers of welfare and intelligence.

There’s less here than meets the eye, however. As the Washington Post editors note, ” The high-profile announcement could give important encouragement to Iran’s opposition. But it’s worth noting that the sanctions themselves were recently mandated by Congress.” Oh. And why haven’t we committed ourselves to full support for the Green movement?

The real proof of the Obama administration’s devotion to democracy promotion will come with clear and decisive action. When do we adopt regime change as our official policy? When do we call it quits and pull the financial plug on the UNHRC? These would demonstrate actual, rather than rhetorical, support for human rights.

The Post editors observe that there’s another opportunity to prove the administration’s bona fides on human rights. Why not take action against the repressive Mubarak government, which is in the process of rigging another election?

[A] resolution authored by Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) has won broad and bipartisan support. The resolution urges Mr. Mubarak’s regime “to take all steps necessary to ensure that upcoming elections are free, fair, transparent and credible, including granting independent international and domestic electoral observers unrestricted access.” …

After the president’s last meeting with Mr. Mubarak this month, a White House summary said Mr. Obama had referred to the need for “credible and transparent elections in Egypt.” The question is whether the administration is willing to take action in support of its words. So far, it has offered no indication that Mr. Mubarak’s failure to accept election observers will result in any consequence for a country that receives $1.5 billion annually in American aid. Nor has the White House offered support for the Senate resolution, in public or in private. It could, at least, do that.

Let’s see what the Obama administration does. Frankly, the president’s words don’t carry all that much credibility these days.

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Free Suleiman!

On March 12 an Egyptian court began hearing the appeal of Abdel Kareem Suleiman, an Egyptian blogger sentenced to four years in prison for his writings. This case is unlike that of Alaa, a prominent Egyptian blogger imprisoned for forty days last year. Alaa had been arrested at a demonstration, thus leaving some ambiguity about whether he had been singled out because of his blog or merely suffered the fate of other street protesters in Egypt. But Abdel Kareem was charged purely on account of his writing.

This is therefore a portentous civil liberties case. Blogging has exploded in the Middle East, rapidly eroding the region’s tradition of state control of communications. Not everyone has access to the Internet today, but it is only a matter of time until they do. Last year, an association of Egyptian bloggers announced that it had passed the milestone of one thousand members. The number in Iran is much larger. And even in Saudi Arabia, with its tight traditional controls, I discovered many bloggers on a recent visit. State interference has consisted of blocking sites that go too far, but this can be circumvented by the tech-savvy, and it cannot stop communications that rely on a satellite signal rather than on a wire, as will also become universal.

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On March 12 an Egyptian court began hearing the appeal of Abdel Kareem Suleiman, an Egyptian blogger sentenced to four years in prison for his writings. This case is unlike that of Alaa, a prominent Egyptian blogger imprisoned for forty days last year. Alaa had been arrested at a demonstration, thus leaving some ambiguity about whether he had been singled out because of his blog or merely suffered the fate of other street protesters in Egypt. But Abdel Kareem was charged purely on account of his writing.

This is therefore a portentous civil liberties case. Blogging has exploded in the Middle East, rapidly eroding the region’s tradition of state control of communications. Not everyone has access to the Internet today, but it is only a matter of time until they do. Last year, an association of Egyptian bloggers announced that it had passed the milestone of one thousand members. The number in Iran is much larger. And even in Saudi Arabia, with its tight traditional controls, I discovered many bloggers on a recent visit. State interference has consisted of blocking sites that go too far, but this can be circumvented by the tech-savvy, and it cannot stop communications that rely on a satellite signal rather than on a wire, as will also become universal.

The prosecution of Abdel Kareem sets a chilling precedent that threatens the emerging free space of the Arab blogosphere. His harsh sentence raises the stakes.

There is also one other important aspect to this case. Even while the Mubarak government maintains strong prescriptions against the Muslim Botherhood and often imprisons its activists, the two camps collaborate, sub rosa, against Egypt’s liberals. Suleiman’s conviction reflects this unholy alliance. A former student at the theological center Al Azhar, Suleiman was given three years for insulting Islam by calling the prophet Mohammed and his contemporary followers “spillers of blood.” He got an additional year for calling President Mubarak a “dictator.” (His conviction puts the lie to that one, eh?)

The Egyptian blogosphere is understandably up in arms about this case. (You can follow it at the delightful blog, Freedom for Egyptians, and at other Egyptian blogs linked there.) With the U.S. government now soft-peddling the promotion of democracy in Egypt, it’s all the more important that American bloggers, who have spoken up on this matter but not loudly or often enough, raise their voices in defense of Abdel Kareem.

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