Mubarak the Shameless
April 20, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >
Mubarak the Shameless
BY NIBRAS KAZIMI
April 20, 2006
Nowhere have the enemies of democracy taken as much heart as in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. Whether it is the Egyptian strongman himself, or Egyptian terrorist Ayman Zawahiri, those enemies seem to relish the fact that President Bush's doctrine of spreading democracy has been so thoroughly undermined in Cairo. In fact, they would hasten to add that it is practically dead and over with, and the Middle East must get back to the usual way of doing things.
A while ago, I watched a group of Syrian dissidents huddle around a State Department official as he sang the praises of America's new policy of spreading democracy. One of them asked, "What about Egypt?" and the official answered that Foggy Bottom's policy was one of big-brotherly scolding, that is, embracing Mubarak with one arm while wagging a disapproving finger in his face. The implication was that they were teaching a naughty boy right from wrong by shaming him into reform. The Syrians nodded their heads in a patronizing manner; it was the official himself who seemed wet behind the ears, for they knew all too well the nature of tyranny.
Last week, President Mubarak emerged to rally the Middle Eastern status quo against the vestiges of change. Mubarak launched a blanket attack on the Arab Shias, questioning their loyalty and rehashing some talking points from the early 1980s that painted them as proxies of non-Arab Shia Iran. But Mubarak intended for a far greater effect than a broadside against the Shias. He was dispatching a message to all the uppity minorities of the Middle East: "know your place."
Anyone who thought that reform in Egypt or anywhere else would include changes like equal citizenship for all was gravely mistaken, Mubarak was insinuating. Sure, the fall of Saddam liberated harassed minorities like the Shias and the Kurds, raising the expectations of deliverance on the part of their equals elsewhere, such as the numerous Coptic Christians in Egypt. Yet Mubarak was subtly making the case that the moment had passed and change would not come anymore.
Mubarak had gloated some months ago that even Secretary of State Rice had not brought up issues of reform during her last sit-down with him, and that this was a reflection of America's troubles in the region. But Washington's apparent disarray - or "tottering" as Zawahiri put it - also gave an opportunity for Al Qaeda to harp on the theme of America's broken promises.
In Zawahiri's latest half-hour message, titled "Four Years After Tora Bora," which began circulating on the Web a week ago, Al-Qaeda's No.2 used a belittling Arabic proverb to suggest that for all of America's rhetoric concerning democracy, the "mountain went into labor and gave birth to a mouse." To prove his case, he cites the re-election of Mubarak. Sadly, Zawahiri makes a compelling case, especially when considering that Mubarak's chief challenger is now serving a prison sentence, while the candidate who came in third in the voting tally awaits a similar fate. Both were undermined by libelous acrimony from within their own parties, allegedly at the instigation of Egypt's shady security services.
To understand how the regime sets out to discredit and cripple the political chances of its detractors by blackening their names in the courts of public opinion and in real ones too, one should take a look at how Mubarak's security goons have dealt with the handful of Shia Egyptian converts in their midst. The story started out with a serious awakening of intellectual interest in Shiism among the Egyptian public after the Iranian revolution broke out into the scene, and this interest was helped by deep-rooted Shia cultural tendencies in Egyptian Islam harking back to a time eight centuries ago when Egypt was under Shia rule. The first crop of Egyptian Shia converts were professionals such as Dr. Ahmad Al-Nafis. But from the get-go, the Shias came "under fire," as he told me over the phone Tuesday, and a coordinated campaign to "stoke Shia-Sunni hatreds" was unleashed by the regime through its official publications.
The regime's next move was to invent a leadership for Egypt's Shias, and they turned to a colorful character whose range of affiliations ran from being pro-Saddam to having a conduit to Saudi intelligence. This man, Muhammad Al-Dureini, was unleashed to form something called the Shia Higher Council of Egypt, even though by most estimates the numbers of converts did not exceed the low hundreds. By bringing such a man onstage, the regime was able to control the shrillness of the debate and turn into something of a circus act, thus cheapening it. Scholars like Dr. Al-Nafis were sidelined, for they couldn't compete in the acrobatics of controversy.
However, Dureini ran afoul of the regime at one point and he was imprisoned for 15 months, and an aide called Muhammad Al-Mersi was enabled to tarnish his former boss's name. Meeting Al-Mersi is a grimy pension house in downtown Cairo in September, and listening to him deliriously rattle on in a hushed voice about divine visions, and how he was unsure who was sending out e-mails from his organization's account denouncing Dureini as a "cockroach," gave me an insight into what it takes for a dictatorship to put a face to an accusation: the Mubarak regime can always recruit such shameless mercenaries to come to the fore and bring down whoever is deemed a threat.
It is astounding that Mubarak's goons went to all this trouble to simply cripple something as numerically insignificant as a nascent Shia movement for conversion. But they were not threatened by Shiism as such rather they were threatened by the idea that the individual Egyptian should have a choice - uncontrolled by the regime - to chose a spiritual or political path other than what was already under the regime's thumb.
It was thus easy for the regime to coax hacks into accusing Ayman Nour of all sorts of crimes. He himself was a politician used by the regime to bark at others, but having seized upon America's promises for change, he decided to try out his luck in standing up to Mubarak. But Mr. Nour, who was once such a cause celebre that Secretary Rice would cancel a state visit to Egypt to protest an earlier arrest, now finds himself in jail on trumped-up charges, bereft of friends and attention.
Mubarak's comments were bad news for the Copts as well. They had attracted some attention in Congress, pressed by Coptic Americans. But the recent violent attacks on their community and the Egyptian government's apparent nonchalance seem to reflect yet another message from the Mubarak regime to the Copts: "we are no longer afraid of a few noisy congressmen decrying your plight."
Washington has yet to understand a basic tenet of dealing with bad men: one cannot shame the shameless. The Egyptian dictator is flaunting his disregard for the changing political landscape of the Middle East by implying that this was all a historical blip and things will revert to as they have always been. No amount of soft-spoken scolding will be enough to change his antics; he is a major embarrassment that the terrorists can point to as an example of President Bush's perfidy.
Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
April 20, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >