Obama's Executive Orders: Is Egypt Listening?

You may have missed it because it was ignored by virtually the entire the American mainstream press, but there's a really creepy irony that accompanied President Obama's decision to close Guantanamo and end torture, secret prisons and extraordinary rendition.

The irony is that some of the most lavish praise for Obama came from the press in countries that most of us would find, what shall we say, paradoxical. Countries that for many years have been the poster boys for unlawful detention, torture, secret prisons and "disappeared" prisoners.

Countries are in a part of the world that has been a consistent destination for those rendered by our CIA.

That would be the Middle East, where most of the press is owned or controlled by authoritarian governments. Countries are in which political dissent is about as welcome as a pandemic of the Black Plague.

Top of the poster-boy list has to be Egypt, a beautiful country full of gracious, hospitable people – and some not so much — where my family and I lived for several years.

Egypt has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak since 1981, when the then vice-president took on the top job following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Since then, the country’s now 80-year-old president has been a kind of caricature of old-style Arab potentates.

For all those years, Egypt has lived under so-called Emergency Laws. These laws give the government sweeping powers and give the citizens no powers.

Public gatherings are banned unless they get government permits. And until recently — when Bush’s democracy promotion mantra finally began exerting ever-so-gentle pressure on the Mubarak regime to clean up its act — political parties were banned or otherwise prevented from participating in the annual referendums that reelected the president with math-like precision.

Egypt’s security services are omnipresent. Public intellectuals – including journalists and bloggers — who dare to express dissent with the government wait, literally, for the knock at the door at 3 A.M. And the knock comes all too often. The security cops can and do take you away, destination often unknown, and can hold you indefinitely. You may never be charged with anything, nor have a lawyer represent you. The "justice system," as we understand justice, is virtually non-existent. The security courts are in Hosni Mubarak’s pocket.

Since 1995, when Bill Clinton was president, Egypt has been one of the CIA’s favorite destinations for victims of "extraordinary rendition," which is government-ese for kidnapping. Since that time, by the most conservative estimate, U.S. authorities have spirited at least twenty people off to Egyptian prisons. Many have been tortured. Some have died.

Others have simply disappeared. Little wonder then that each and every year Egypt’s abuses are high on the list in our State Department’s annual human rights reports.

But, at the same time, in some other place in our government, foreign policy-makers are drafting the latest request to Congress for more billions in U.S. military and economic aid. U.S. aid to Egypt has averaged more than $2 billion every year 1979. It is second only to Israel.

U.S. aid to Egypt is its reward for making peace with Israel in 1979, following the Camp David Accords. And it continues because Egypt has been playing a peacemaker role between the warring Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, as well as between Israelis and Palestinians.

Since 9/11, the government has used George W. Bush’s "global war on terror" to suppress dissent from its leading opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. But denial of the most basic human rights is not directed only at the Brotherhood; it applies to every Egyptian citizen.

Given that background, I found it more than a bit ironic that one of Egypt’s leading newspapers, Al Ahram, would be trumpeting President Obama’s GITMO executive orders as a huge victory for human rights.

Calling Guantanamo, "a dark spot in U.S. history" and "a symbol of injustice and oppression," the newspaper wrote, "The prison is arguably one of the worst mockeries of international law, which was itself drafted partly by American legal experts.

Past U.S. administrations may not have been devoted followers of the Geneva Conventions, but neither have they ever discarded international treaties as openly and as arrogantly as the current one."

"Former attorney-general Alberto Gonzales, a personal friend of President Bush, mastered this art in a way that allowed his bosses to adorn their gratuitous actions with the air of legitimacy. Guantanamo was his ultimate masterpiece," its story concluded.

There is little dispute among those of us George Bush has not terrorized into a perpetual state of fear that GITMO and what happened there is a disgrace to the United States. But offhand I can’t think of a hypocrisy greater than its denunciation by a country that invented its own Guantanamo’s many years before ours – and arguably even more brutal and law-free.

That said, there may yet be an upside for the Egyptian people in Obama’s decision to close the place down. Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper – one of the best in the region – captured the possible gain.

It wrote of the negative effects U.S. interrogation practices have had on the observance of human rights by Arab governments. "With public knowledge of the American use of water boarding in Guantanamo and elsewhere, why would Arab leaders promote human rights and political reforms? The closing of Guantanamo will send an important message that torture will not be tolerated by the Obama administration," the paper said.

Will Obama’s actions rob Mr. Mubarak of one of his most useful fig leaves?

Maybe. But it’s a real long shot.

I wouldn’t take it to the bank just yet.

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