Within the space of 18 days, the second West sponsored dictator in the Middle East succumbed to the will of his people. Comments filtered in from world leaders that this was a victory for the Egyptian people and how they wished that it would lead to a democratic rule. It was inevitable that the ‘d’ word would rear its head. However western governments should not mistake what has taken place here, this has not been about democracy – but rather about dignity for the people.
For too long have the Middle East has been spared criticisms of its method of governance due to the strategic goals that were achieved by the West and America in particular. Saudi Arabia and the Khaleej allowed for their oil resources to be used and their land to be pseudo-occupied with military bases. Egypt has helped to secure the position of Israel in the region and along with remaining Arab countries, has helped the US to become a proxy detention site for renditions, interrogations and torture.
Detention and torture
“If you want a serious interrogation, you send them to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never see them again – you send them to Egypt.” [Robert Baer – former CIA Case Officer]
The US-led War on Terror has led to some of the most unlikely alliances between cooperating states. Since the emergence of details of the rendition programme, there were consistent references to the use of Egypt as a partner in the detention, rendition and torture of suspected terrorists. Cageprisoners Director and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Moazzam Begg, was threatened with possible rendition to Egypt if he did not cooperate while still in Afghanistan, but further suspects such as Mamdouh Habib and Ahmed Agiza were indeed sent and detained there.
Egypt has a long history of detention without charge and torture of suspected terrorists. Abuse of detainees in Egypt has been very well documented by numerous human rights NGOs and there is nothing to suggest that the status quo changed after 9/11. After the World Trade Centre attacks, the US chose Egypt as one of many locations to outsource the torture and interrogation of those detained by its agents elsewhere in the world. With official documents such as those in the case of Binyam Mohamed being released to the public, a clear picture has emerged of the way in which the network of allies within the War on Terror have chosen to establish a secret network of prisons.
Egypt is not alone in the way in which western states have chosen to cooperate with the autocracies in the Arab world. Syria, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Yemen and others have all allowed themselves to detain and abuse suspects on behalf of the US and its allies.
Despite the best efforts of its people, Egypt still continues to have emergency rule dictating the governance of the country. With the military having been given control of the country, the status quo of the country is set to remain the same in the foreseeable future. Egypt’s deposed dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was very much the nominal head of a system that has undermined it people since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Nasser’s time, the independence he helped the Egyptian people achieve led to some of the worst excesses of human rights abuses against the very people he claimed to liberate.
Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981 following the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat by Islamist insurgents. Immediately upon taking office, Mubarak re-imposed the Egyptian Emergency Law (which has been continuously re-extended every three years since) taking a brutal stance towards political opposition in general, and on Islamic insurgency in particular.
The Emergency Law authorises prolonged periods of incommunicado detention, as well as extending police powers, legalising censorship and circumscribing any non-governmental political activity. The Emergency Law also establishes a parallel legal system with emergency courts, judges and public prosecutors – all appointed by State Security. The court system is exceptional in that it denies defendants the right to a full review before a higher tribunal. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of political prisoners are detained under these laws – thousands of these incommunicado, with all knowledge of their location denied by the authorities, justified by the latest excuse of the War on Terror.
Many of those that have been released from incommunicado detention recount gross practices of torture inflicted upon themselves or upon other detainees while in custody, while families of those that have been ‘disappeared’ often explain their own fears of trying to investigate the whereabouts of their missing loved ones – something considered a dangerous activity during Mubarak’s Egypt.
The practice of secretly detaining and torturing suspects from the war on terror in Egypt is not, however, limited to the Egyptian government and security services. Western governments have rendered, and continue to render, persons within their own territory – including their own citizens into this system.
American and European complicity
US complicity in Egyptian incommunicado detention and torture has an especially long history. According to the former CIA senior intelligence analyst Michael Scheuer, who helped set up the United States ‘extraordinary rendition’ programme, US agents proposed America’s rendition programme to Egypt in 1995. This gives Egypt the ominous status of being the US’s destination country of first choice for unlawfully rendering ‘terror’ suspects.
Egypt, Scheuer has asserted, was an obvious choice of destination for rendered subjects in the war on terror as it was a key strategic ally and the largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel. That Egypt’s secret police force – the Mukhabarat – had a reputation for brutality was a factor cited in its favour. With the US making clear that it had the resources to track, capture and transport terrorist subjects globally – including access to a small fleet of aircraft – Egypt embraced the idea. “What was clever was that some of the senior people in Al Qaeda were Egyptian” Scheuer explains. “It served American purposes to get these people arrested and Egyptian purposes to get these people back, where they could be interrogated”.
Egypt remains one of the most common destinations for rendered subjects in the War of Terror. Prisoners from Egypt and all over the world, including those transferred from both North America and Western Europe, are held secretly in detention centres across the country. Undeniably, an extremely close relationship has developed between certain Western governments – most notably that of the USA – and Egyptian intelligence services, “The Americans could give the Egyptian interrogators questions they wanted to put to the detainees in the morning”, Scheuer has asserted, “and receive the answers by the evening.”
Allegations of British complicity in relation to detention and torture in Egypt have also been brought to light in recent years, most notably in regards to the July 2008 detention of British national Azhar Khan in Cairo. Khan contends that he was tortured and interrogated about information pertaining to the UK, rather than Egypt. Information, he claims, that could only have come from the UK as it was not available in the public domain. In addition to this, the British Embassy were aware of his detention in Egypt at that time, having been alerted by Khan’s travelling companion immediately. The fact that the Foreign Office has subsequently confirmed their knowledge of him being detained in July and of his complaints of mistreatment is concerning given that they had highlighted detention in Egypt as a “human rights concern” in January of that year. British collusion in Egyptian detentions has also been alluded to in the case of Mehdi Hashi, who was questioned by Egyptian authorities about his associations with terrorist groups under what appears to have been the pretence of an expired visa.
Western governments are not only complicit in the incommunicado nature of detentions, but also in the practice of torture in Egypt. Sending an individual to a country in which he or she may be held incommunicado, or in which there are ‘substantial grounds for believing’ that he or she may be tortured, constitutes a grave breach of international law. It is thus extraordinary that suspects in the War on Terror are sent to Egypt. The country has frequently been cited by governmental and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) as a gross violator of human rights. According to a US state department 2002 report, for example, it was stated that detainees within Egypt were “stripped and blindfolded; suspended from the ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beaten with fists, whips, metal rods, or other objects; subjected to electric shocks; and doused with cold water [and] sexually assaulted”. Some states – such as Sweden – have tried to circumvent their international obligations to prevent the practice of torture by seeking diplomatic assurances that rendered subjects will not be tortured. However, these agreements have offered little protection to those unfortunate enough to find themselves in Egyptian hands and have been deemed in breach of international law by the United Nations Committee against Torture.
Officials have known exactly what fate awaited those rendered to Egyptian hands, but rendered them in to this system with worthless, or, most often, with no guarantees. Indeed, it is the case that suspects in the war on terror were sent not only in spite of the human rights violations occurring in Egyptian detention centres, but because of this.
Human rights organisations have received numerous reports providing information on serious overcrowding in Egyptian prisons. Large numbers of prisoners are housed in cramped and poorly ventilated cells often having to sit on top of each other, live in corridors and sleep in shifts. Prisoners are locked in their cells for the greater part of the day, and are often only allowed one hour per day in the fresh air. Mahmoud Akram Sharif, a citizen of both Egypt and the United Kingdom, for example, was held in an underground cell for six years without seeing the light of day. Detainees that have been held incommunicado frequently report being held in such conditions, locked in dungeons for months or years.
This confinement undoubtedly contributes to severe respiratory and allergy related ailments among prisoners, and to the rapid spread of contagious diseases such as scabies and other skin diseases. The outbreak and spread of disease is also exacerbated by the grossly inadequate standards of hygiene in Egyptian prisons. Water supplies and washing and toilet facilities are severely limited, and prisoners are not provided with sufficient clothing or blankets. Most Egyptian prisons lack even the most basic medical facilities necessary for the treatment of prisoners’ health problems. Most prisons have no medical personnel on site, and only basic medication such as analgesics and cream for the treatment of skin diseases, such as scabies, are available. Reports have also been received that seriously ill prisoners in need of specialized care have not been transferred to hospitals. The lack of adequate medical facilities and care in places of detention is in direct contravention of both international human rights standards (such as the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment) and national legislation.
Human rights organisations have, for many years, issued numerous reports documenting the systematic use of torture against detainees in Egypt. Again, detainees that are held incommunicado are particularly vulnerable to becoming the subjects of such crimes. The most common methods reported are the use of electric shocks, beatings, suspension by the wrists or ankles, extinguishing of cigarettes on the body, and various forms of psychological torture and ill-treatment, including rape and threats of rape of the detainee or his female relatives in front of him.
Hypocrisy will fan the flames
The fear that exists within Egypt of the security agencies and the way in which they operate has not been removed with the fall of Mubarak. Conversely, it has left a vacuum where none really know how the military (a continuing legacy of Mubarak) will respond to the desires of the Egyptian people. Already we have seen that protesters have been detained and abused in large numbers, but will they be exempted from the torture and ill treatment that is systematic in the country?
Claims by western democracies that this has been a pro-democracy revolution, have completely missed the mark. Rather, this has been an example of the Egyptian people exercising their right to determine for themselves that they no longer wish to live under the fear of dictators who are backed by the US and UK – it has been completely about retaking their dignity from the fear imposed by others.
The US particularly does have something to fear. According to a robust survey conducted by World Public Opinion in 2007, 92% of sampled Egyptians felt that the goal of the US was to weaken and divide Islam. 82% of the sample felt that the US was at war with Islam and that they should remove troops and bases from Muslim countries. Further, there was the desire of 50% to have a strict application of Islamic law in Egypt. Of possibly most concern to the US, and this was generally the case across all the countries sampled – Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia – that although the large majority in each country were emphatically against the targeting of civilians in attacks, over 70% of the sample in each country agreed with the general aims of Al Qaeda. This last statistic related heavily to foreign intervention in their lands and the perceived support for the way in which the US and its allies have interacted with the Muslim world.
The statements that have come from the west have been largely useless as they have been perceived in the same light as the polls conducted above. The hypocrisy of the west has not gone unnoticed, and it will continue to fan the flames of discontent in the Middle East if they do not learn that support for dictators and for anti-Islamic sentiments will have a directly negative impact. Whatever goodwill the Muslim world was willing to give to Barack Hussein Obama at the start of his tenure, has very quickly vanished as realisation has set that his policies are no different to that of previous administrations – which in turn has only reinforced the knowledge that the west cares very little about the genuine will of the people, and more about their self interests.