Dawn of Freedom Awaits Sunrise

by Nir Boms and Aaron Mannes

Tuesday, April 5, 2005 7:33 PM EDT

The DC Examiner

With elections in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, huge pro-freedom demonstrations in tiny Lebanon and even small pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt, it appears that freedom’s dawn is finally reaching the Middle East. But democracies require the rule of law and currently the legal systems throughout the region serve as tools of repression rather than guarantors of individual liberty.

Consider tiny Kuwait, a strong ally of the United States, possessor of enormous oil reserves, and long considered one of the most moderate, cosmopolitan and liberal Arab states. Yet a leading liberal academic has been handed a one-year suspended jail term by Kuwait’s appeals court for writing an article deemed offensive to the holy book of Islam, the Quran.

Ahmad al-Baghdadi, a professor of political science at Kuwait University and a noted columnist, was convicted of “disparaging the Quran” for criticizing the Education Ministry’s plan to increase the number of Islamic education lessons in schools. Baghdadi is known for holding controversial views. He had previously been sentenced to one month in prison in 1999 due to an article in which he dared to claim that Mohammad failed in at least part of his mission. He was pardoned by the emir after serving 13 days.

Three Islamist activists filed the case against Baghdadi saying, his article accused Kuwait’s Islamic education of teaching students to be terrorists and to hate women and non-Muslims. Baghdadi’s appeal was rejected by the court, which insisted that the article “linked learning Islam and the Quran with terrorism and backwardness.”

A regional survey finds similar situations where the legal system is used to harass reformers. In Egypt, Legislator Ayman Nour, chairman of the liberal al-Ghad party, who had the audacity to try to run against long-serving President Mubarak in Egypt’s upcoming elections, faces criminal charges for forging applications for membership in his party. Regardless of the veracity of charges, Nour was quickly stripped of his parliamentary immunity and held in prison for nearly 40 days while waiting for the state prosecutor to press charges. These actions sent an unmistakable message to anyone seeking to challenge Mubarak’s power just weeks after he himself announced that Egypt will have open and free elections.

In neighboring Libya, the nation’s leading democracy advocate Fathi Eljahmi languishes in prison for the crime of calling for pluralism. At the same time five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, have been imprisoned since 1999 and were sentenced to death more than a year ago for supposedly causing an AIDS epidemic at a hospital in Benghazi, Libya. International experts have agreed that the infections, which killed 47 children, were caused by poor hygiene and pre-dated the arrival of the medics.

But they are convenient scapegoats for Libya’s autocrat Muammar Gaddafi to use to deflect blame from his own incompetent regime.

Elections are important, but rule of law is essential. Until Middle Eastern states have independent judiciaries that can protect the rights of everyone, the transformation of the region will remain incomplete. The dawn of freedom may appear on the Middle Eastern horizon – but the sun has not yet risen.

Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Aaron Mannes is the author of “Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations” and the “Terrorblog” (www.profilesinterror.com).

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