Egypt reckons US too needy to add bite to bark

CAIRO — Egypt’s rulers are ignoring US criticism of their crackdown on political opposition because they calculate that the Bush administration desperately needs friends in the Middle East, critics and observers say.

The US State Department has publicly criticised Egypt three times this month over its human rights record, its crushing of political dissent and a lack of reform.

But the rebukes lack teeth because they come with no threat of economic consequences, despite calls in the US Congress to reconsider the nearly $2 billion a year given to Egypt, more than to any other Arab country except Iraq.

Washington has made clear it does not want to cut aid, which might undercut Egypt’s role as an intermediary in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as a bulwark against radical Islam and as a friend in a hostile region.

The Egyptian authorities do not take seriously threats by Congress, which approves foreign aid, because it has made similar noises before without acting, analysts say.

“The US is in deep trouble in places like Iraq, and potentially Iran… Not even its closest allies have time for it any more, and people are just biding time till the next administration,” political science professor Walid Kazziha said.

“There’s an exchange of interest. The Egyptians need the Americans and the Americans need the Egyptians and the Egyptians realise this, so they’re raising the price,” he added.

In recent weeks Egyptian police have taken a much tougher approach to street protests. Plainclothes security men have beaten, clubbed and detained people demonstrating peacefully in support of judges demanding independence from the executive.

In April, Egypt’s parliament agreed a two-year extension of an emergency law, in force since 1981, giving the government power to detain without charge and restricting civil liberties.

Authorities say the law is to fight terrorism and drugs, but activists say it is used to crush dissent.

Dismissing criticism of Egypt’s crushing of demonstrations, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said the protesters were “thugs,” and the interior ministry has said the media misrepresented events.

Out of control

Publisher and activist Hisham Kassem said the government is trying to claw back ground lost to opposition groups last year when it was under US pressure to open up the political system.

“I think now the Mubarak regime is in self-defence mode and they’re beginning to organise… If you look at all the territory they lost over the last two years, they have to apply the brakes or things will get out of control,” he said.

Egypt’s strongest opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned but usually tolerated Islamist group. It sidestepped the ban to win a fifth of parliamentary seats in 2005 polls by fielding candidates as independents.

In an interview on Saturday, Nazif said the government wants to prevent the group, which says it seeks political reform through peaceful means, from using the loophole again.

Hafez Abu Seada, secretary general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human rights, said the US is keen to prevent the spread of political Islamism, especially after the militant Islamist group Hamas swept Palestinian polls in January.

As well as a dam against Islamist sentiment in the Arab world, the US sees Egypt as a broker in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and a major player in the wider region, he said.

“I think they [Egypt’s rulers] don’t care about criticism from the US … because they’re now using the Muslim Brotherhood card, saying they used (political) freedom to try to reach power,” said Abu Seada.

By exploiting shared strategic interest, analysts said Egypt’s rulers were consolidating power by also cracking down on secular opposition groups, on which the US has pinned its hopes for political reform.

Last week an Egyptian court refused liberal opposition party leader Ayman Nour’s appeal against a five-year sentence on forgery charges, despite US appeals for his release on humanitarian grounds. Nour is diabetic.

He came a distant second to President Hosni Mubarak in presidential polls last year, and pro-democracy activists say the forgery charges were fabricated. He cannot launch another appeal, and is now unlikely to run in 2011 presidential polls.

“I think the regime feels the danger … not because he has a substantial following, but because the West is known to bring people and put them in the forefront,” Kazziha said.

“You have Karzai, you have Chalabi. This is challenging the regime’s future,” he added, referring to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Ahmad Chalabi, deputy prime minister in the outgoing Iraqi government and former US favourite for Iraqi leader.

300 judges protest

CAIRO (Reuters) — At least 300 Egyptian judges stood in silence outside the high court on Thursday in protest against what they say is state interference in the judiciary.

Hundreds of police, some in riot gear, surrounded the court and blocked about 200 other activists outside Egypt’s Journalists’ Syndicate building nearby from joining the judges.

The activists, penned in by the riot police, protested on the steps of the building. Two were beaten and dragged away by plainclothes security men as they left the protest, George Ishak, a leader of the anti-government Kefaya movement said.

At two protests in support of the judges this month, security forces have beaten and detained peaceful protesters and journalists, provoking criticism from Washington and the European Union. “No political reform without freedom for the press and independence for the judiciary,” one banner posted outside the syndicate said.

Elsewhere, about 100 activists protested in support of the judges outside Cairo University. Egypt’s Tagammu opposition party said its headquarters was besieged by police to stop members from joining demonstrations.

“We are calling for the independence of the judiciary … and our complete supervision of elections if there is to be supervision from now on. This is an historic day,” said Ahmed Salah, a judge at the protest, who wore his ceremonial red sash.

Outside the court, at least 100 journalists, cameramen, photographers and activists clapped and cheered the judges, who stood on the steps of the building.

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