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With Friends Like These

One of the Arab world’s most widely respected nongovernmental organizations is charging that at least 14 Middle East and North African governments are systematically violating the civil liberties of their citizens—and most of them are close U.S. allies in the “war on terror.”

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council last week, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) said that there have been "huge harassments of human rights organizations and defenders have been increasingly subject to abusive and suppressive actions by government actors … in the majority of Arab countries, particularly Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and Tunisia."

The group called on the international community to "exert effective efforts to urge Arab governments to duly reconsider their legislation, policy, and practices contravening their international obligations to protect freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom to form associations, including nongovernmental organizations." It added that, "Special attention should be awarded to providing protection to human rights defenders in the Arab World."

As an example of typical area-wide human rights abuses, the CIHRS report cited the recent forced closure by Egyptian authorities of the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, an organization active in exposing incidents of torture. The Egyptian government claimed that the organization "received foreign funding without having the consent of the Minister of Social Solidarity."

The organization warned of "increasingly repressive conditions" being imposed on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt, including a proposed amendment to the Law of Associations that it said would limit the right of association and expression.

Other Arab nations singled out for detailed criticism included Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The report also accused four other Arab countries of human rights abuses—Libya, Algeria, Sudan, and Morocco.

The United States and other Western governments have had close ties with Arab governments in the Middle East and North Africa for many years. These ties have grown closer since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

But since the administration of President Ronald Reagan, promoting democracy and freedom in the Arab world has been a staple in U.S. political rhetoric. The rhetoric has ratcheted up significantly during the administration of President George W. Bush. In his second inaugural address, Bush said, "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Bush administration officials say they have used diplomatic pressure, foreign aid, and the architecture established by Reagan to help nurture democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. Bush also said the democratic transformation of the Middle East would begin with regime change in Iraq.

Although Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have publicly expressed criticism of Egypt for repressing free political opposition—notably the imprisonment of liberal reformers such as Ayman Nour, the principal political opponent of longtime President Hosni Mubarak—many observers have found other aspects of the U.S. relationship with Egypt to be problematic.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress put a "hold" on $100 million of military aid to Egypt, calling on the Mubarak government to protect the independence of the judiciary, stop police abuses, and curtail arms smuggling from Egypt to Gaza. In testimony to Congress, Margaret Scobey, the nominee to be ambassador to Egypt, said, "The government’s respect for human rights remains poor, and serious abuses continue."

But then the United States waived the hold in a bid to encourage Egypt to help calm the Israeli-Palestinian crises. In a visit to Egypt in January, Bush told his Egyptian counterpart, "I appreciate the example that your nation is setting."

Egypt receives $2 billion a year, including $1.3 billion in U.S. military—second only to the sum awarded to Israel.

Steve Carpinelli of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) told the Inter Press Service, "Billions of dollars in new military aid, accompanied by lax oversight and poor accountability, have flowed to governments with documented histories of human rights abuses, weak advancements toward democratic governance and the rule of law, among the findings of the Center’s Collateral Damage project, which assessed the impact of U.S. military aid in the post 9/11 era." (The project, produced by CPI, a government accountability watchdog group, is a comprehensive report on U.S. military aid to repressive governments and can be found at www.publicintegrity.org/MilitaryAid/ .)

The CIHRS report to the United Nations details numerous human rights violations throughout the Arab Middle East and North Africa. It accuses Syria of arresting "qualified professionals personnel belonging to human rights organizations and civil society revival committees." It says the Bahraini government closed the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, put the president of one civil society on trial, and charged seven other activists with "participating in an illegal gathering and creating disturbance."

In Tunisia, the report charges, "The authorities have made it almost impossible for the Tunisian League for Human Rights and other civil society institutions to operate." Tunisian human rights defenders have not been allowed to travel abroad and the government undertook measures to freeze the league’s grants from the European Union.

According to the CIHRS report, "Many Gulf countries, as well as Libya, do not allow for the existence of human rights organizations or civil society activists. The long-running Algerian military influence has severely limited civil society organizations. Since the toppling of Sudan’s democratic government in 1989, Sudanese civil society has been deprived of many legal and political protections and rights. Furthermore, civil society institutions in conflict affected countries, such as Iraq, come under constant violent attack; the same applies to the situation in Palestine—whether due to the occupation or in-fighting between its two political parties."

The report identifies Morocco as one of the few Arab countries that has made progress in the human rights field. However, it notes that members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights have been arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison for periods ranging between two and three years for displaying slogans during a peaceful protest during Labor Day celebrations. The slogans were considered by the authorities to be "detrimental to the king and monarchy," the report said.

William Fisher writes for the Inter Press Service.

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