Free Elections equals free speech in Egypt?

Today US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Egypt to go ahead with its plans for democratic reform. While she welcomes the recent constitutional amendment to allow more than one candidate in the presidential elections, Dr Rice also recommended that the opposition be given more access to the media so that there is a "sense of competition."

"I believe they will take their responsibility seriously because people will watch what happens in Egypt," Ms Rice said after the meeting in the Sinai resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.

Analysts observe that this new emphasis for reform from the US makes it possible for opposition movements and the independent press to move forward and be more critical of its government.

However, the press and the opposition are still suspicious of the US intentions. Besides the US support for Israel and the invasion of Iraq as reasons to be on guard, many human rights activists feel that the Dr Rice's support for reform is lax.

On May 25 Human Rights Watch reports that plainclothes police and supporters of the ruling party attacked a group of pro-reform demonstrators and journalists at a peaceful protest.

?The police and ruling-party assaults on pro-reform advocates shows just how hollow the Mubarak government?s rhetoric of reform really is,? said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. ?At a minimum, the president should appoint people with unquestioned integrity to investigate this state-sanctioned brutality.

When Agence-France Presse asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about it, she replied that she had ?not seen the reports you are talking about. We have said to the Egyptians that this process needs to be as open and as forward-leaning as possible, because political reform is a necessity for Egypt,? Rice said. ?Now, they are taking steps forward. Not everything moves at the same speed, and there are going to be different speeds in the Middle East.?

?This kind of mealy-mouthed talk from Washington must have been the best news President Mubarak had all day,? Stork said. ?When push came to shove, as it did literally in Cairo on Wednesday [May 25], the Bush administration?s commitment to reform looked bankrupt.?

The Egyptian government has also been accused of repressing academic freedom in universities by censoring books, outlawing research about controversial issues, such as religion, politics and sex, and harassing student activists.

?The government?s persistent violations of academic freedom have badly undermined Egypt?s standing as the educational leader of the Arab world,? said Stork. ?The authorities should end their excessive and arbitrary interference in the activities of scholars, students and universities.?

University professors report that they have been harassed by Islamist militants from researching controversial subject matter. There is also a provision in Egypt called Law No. 20/1936 which requires that all imported printed material, including course books, be reviewed by the censor?s office. This statute has blocked teaching of classic literature dealing with sexual topics and has had a chilling effect on textbook orders.

?One key role of a university is to provide a forum for high-level debate on controversial topics,? Stork said. ?Universities need to be free of control by state security forces in order to do that.?

Egypt's elections are scheduled for September. Whether reform will happen is yet to be seen.


Post a Comment

<< Home