WikiLeaked

Grabbing at straws in Cairo

WikiLeaks seems to have rediscovered the news cycle, releasing seven cables from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as the Egyptian government crackdown on protesters and journalists turned ugly Thursday. There’s not much in them that you didn’t know if you’ve ever read a Human Rights Watch report on Egypt, though a 2009 scene-setter for a ...

CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images

WikiLeaks seems to have rediscovered the news cycle, releasing seven cables from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as the Egyptian government crackdown on protesters and journalists turned ugly Thursday. There’s not much in them that you didn’t know if you’ve ever read a Human Rights Watch report on Egypt, though a 2009 scene-setter for a visit by FBI Director Robert Mueller does effectively sum up the sorry state of human rights and civil liberties in Hosni Mubarak’s country:

Egypt’s police and domestic security services continue to be dogged by persistent, credible allegations of abuse of detainees.  Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 18 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings. In March, a court sentenced a police officer to 15 years in prison for shooting a motorist following a dispute. The GOE [government of Egypt] has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution, but there are indications that the government is allowing the courts increased independence to adjudicate some police brutality cases.

[…]

The Interior Ministry uses SSIS [the State Security Investigative Services] to monitor and sometimes infiltrate the political opposition and civil society. SSIS suppresses political opposition through arrests, harassment and intimidation. In February following the Gaza war, SSIS arrested a small number of pro-Palestinian activists and bloggers, and detained them for periods of a few days to several weeks.

At the same time, of course, the U.S. government relies on the State Security for help on intelligence and counterterrorism. The pervasive hope in the cables is that somehow the United States’ military and intelligence relationships with Egypt can be translated into influence on democracy promotion and human rights, with embassy officials duly noting the positive signs, however faint: the previously unheard-of prosecution of a State Security officer for torture, the willingness of the SSIS to at least establish a channel of communication with a Human Rights Watch representative. The cable to Mueller laments that Egypt’s counterterrorism cooperation is enabled by the country’s quarter-century-old “draconian” Emergency Law, but is optimistic about the Mubarak regime’s openness to change:

A new Anti-Terror Law has been drafted by an interagency governmental committee; we expected it to be passed by parliament in 2008, but no action has been taken and the Emergency Law remains in effect. The Egyptians have told us that the new law will not simply be the Emergency Law under another name, but rather, will be modeled on the U.S. Patriot Act and other international CT [counterterrorism] legislation, aimed at responsibly balancing the rights of citizens with the government’s need to effectively combat the all-to-real threat of terrorism in Egypt.  We hope you will stress the [U.S. government]’s interest in the new Anti-Terror Law, and the challenge of ensuring the protection of basic freedoms and human rights even when faced with a terror threat.

These particular cables no doubt were released when they were to drive home the hypocrisy of the U.S. government’s dealings with the Mubarak, and they do that quite handily. But the more striking thing about them, a few impolitic remarks about the Egyptian president aside, is how often Washington’s private words about Cairo maintain the tenor of the public ones. There is a recurring element of plaintive long-shot optimism in the embassy officials’ writing, the faint hope that maybe Mubarak’s regime is not quite as awful and allergic to change as the overwhelming preponderance of their own evidence suggests.

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