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Egypt: Sovereignty over minority rights

Saadeddin Ibrahim and allegations on minority rights spark renewed tensions between Cairo and Washington, Dina Ezzat reports


    Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey sparred indirectly this week over the issue of freedoms in Egypt. Scobey made the first jab when she publicly criticised a court decision against Egyptian-American sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim, director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, now self-exiled in Qatar.


    On Saturday, Judge Hisham Bashir ruled that Ibrahim had harmed Egypt's "reputation" through his writings in the "foreign press". The ruling stated Ibrahim's writings were "damaging". Bashir sentenced Ibrahim to two years in prison with bail set at LE10,000 pending appeal, if Ibrahim were to return to Egypt. Ibrahim, who was previously cleared of espionage charges that had cost him three years in jail, is appealing. He is meanwhile facing five other "similar" cases before Egyptian courts.


    On Sunday, Scobey told reporters that this ruling was "disgraceful". On Monday, Abul-Gheit, during a press conference, qualified Scobey's statement as "an unacceptable intervention" in sovereign Egyptian affairs. No government officials wished to entertain any further questions either on the statements of the US ambassador or on the latest development in the Ibrahim case that has been unwinding for seven years since the falling out between the prominent sociologist and the ruling regime over a wide range of issues including the pace and modalities of democratic reform in Egypt and the alleged harassment, according to Ibrahim, of Egypt's Coptic minority.


    Egyptian officials say that they will not be surprised to hear "some sort of low level" protest from visiting American and perhaps European officials and legislators over this case, but they insist that while Egypt is willing to accommodate the wish of "friends" to express their views, it equally expects that these friends would realise that when it comes to sovereignty Egypt "will not bow to intervention". According to an official who asked for his name to be withheld, "the state has its red lines."


    No official statements were made in response to Ibrahim's willingness, voiced on the eve of the court ruling, to accommodate the state's concerns over his vocal criticism so long as he were publicly promised a "safe stay" out of jail. Debate in the press and other media quarters reflected the predictable divide between pro-government and opposition quarters.


    The case of Ibrahim coincides with the mobilisation of US-based Coptic groups. US Senator Frank Wolf presented the US House of Representatives with a "sense of Congress" resolution "calling on the Egyptian government to respect human rights and freedoms of religion and expression in Egypt".


    The resolution stipulates: "Whereas Egypt plays a significant role in the Middle East peace process and in the fight against international terrorism and fundamentalism... Whereas the Copts, Egypt's largest religious minority... suffer from many forms of discrimination... Whereas the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies and its founder [Ibrahim] have been threatened for their work to promote democratic reforms," the House of Representatives would make the bilateral relation between Egypt and the US "a platform for promoting the rule of law and fundamental freedoms" and "calls on the Egyptian government to end all forms of harassment, including judicial measures... of media professionals and, more generally, human rights defenders and activists" and "encourages the Egyptian government... to fully implement and protect the rights of minorities."


    The resolution does not call on the US administration to act. However, it adds to previous US and EU legislative attempts to criticise the record of human rights observation in Egypt.


    The resolution managed to irritate a government already sensitive about rights issues. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Egyptian official said that such resolutions would not twist Egypt's arm into taking steps that are inconsistent with what the state perceives to be in its national security interests. The official added that the issue of Copts is "basically a non-issue and there is no discrimination, especially in view of the accentuated attention dedicated over the past few years to citizenship rights".


    The same source added that US based Coptic groups made many false allegations over Coptic rights in Egypt, "and such allegations are refuted by the Coptic community in Egypt first and foremost".


    Informed government sources say that "indirect messages" have been "carefully communicated to the Church of Egypt" to use its influence over these groups to "prevent further hassle". However, the same source added, no direct contact had been made with US based Coptic groups and "all information circulated about a meeting held between these groups in their Coptic capacity and Egyptian diplomats in the US are simply untrue."


    Some Coptic quarters had suggested that Sherif El-Kholi, Egypt's counsellor in New York, had approached some of the Coptic groups in the US to get them to denounce the Wolf resolution. "Those are simply fabricated accounts. Some members of these groups were present in a meeting that El-Kholi held with members of the Egyptian community in general to discuss a wide range of legal issues, but not to discuss the actions of the Coptic groups," commented an informed source.


    Egyptian officials say that they are sufficiently confident that despite the many disagreements it has with Cairo, when push comes to shove Washington will not want to lose its alliance with Egypt.


    In March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice overrode a recommendation by Congress to withhold $100 million in US aid to Egypt pending the regime's improvement of its human rights record along with upgrading measures to counter arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.


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