Intolerance in Egypt

By Nir Boms
Published July 5, 2006

Last week, Egypt’s minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, announced the latest measure in the war against intolerance in Egypt: a total ban on “The Da Vinci Code” — both the best-selling book and the hit film currently showing in theaters worldwide. 

In a speech to the Egyptian parliament that drew applause from both Islamic Brotherhood and Coptic Christian representatives, Mr. Hosni passionately defended his decision to “ban any book that insults any religion” — and ordered police to confiscate all copies of “The Da Vinci Code,” which has been on Egypt’s top-selling lists since 2003. 

The book — with its fictional plot about a wedding between Christ and Mary Magdalene and a secret order of their descendants — has caused uproar among many Christians who worry that some may confuse the fictional narrative with actual Christian theology. But this, apparently, was not the only factor behind Mr. Hosni’s decision to ban it. Georgette Sobhi, a Coptic member of parliament, explained that the book is based on “Zionist myths” and, hence, insults both the Christian religion and Islam. 

This type of censorship is disturbingly common in President Hosni Mubarak’s “New Egypt.” Anti-democratic lies and myths are not something that the country should tolerate, and, so, people like Alaa Seif al-Islam are trying to teach their government the value of tolerance. 

Mr. Seif al-Islam was one of a growing number of Egyptian bloggers who recounted their lives online, published poetry and stayed out of politics. But in May 2005, he witnessed the beating of women at a pro-democracy rally in central Cairo by supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party and decided to post an account on his site. He was immediately rounded up by police and his laptop was taken. Last month, during a peaceful demonstration to support two Egyptian judges who were put on trial after making public allegations about electoral fraud, Mr. Seif al-Islam was arrested again. But this time, he had some company. 

Since April, 48 activists associated with the opposition movement of Kifaya! (“Enough”) and Youth for Change have been detained. Allegations of sexual assault and torture have been made by prisoners. In particular, the case of Mohammed al-Sharqawi, a fellow blogger and Youth for Change member, continues to concern rights groups. Mr. al-Sharqawi, according to his own statement and a report by Human Rights Watch, was beaten and sexually assaulted while in custody. 

At the same time, three other journalists and a lawyer were brought before an Egyptian court on libel charges. The editor of Sawt el-Ummam, his fellow journalists and a reporter at Afaq Arabiya were accused of publishing the names of the dissenting judges. If convicted, they face up to two years in prison under an article of the press law that Mr. Mubarak promised to amend two years ago. 

The list of such Egyptian examples is, unfortunately, a long one. And it should raise strong concern, not only in Egypt but also in the United States. 

Vice President Dick Cheney took some time last month to meet Gamal Mubarak, the son of the Egyptian president and a possible candidate to replace him in 2010. The issues of democracy and human rights were, reportedly, on the table — but as usual, nothing appears to have changed. 

Indeed, the voice of the United States — and the $2.5 billion in aid given annually to Egypt — seems to have been ignored in this latest wave of political arrests. The president himself made some public statements about democracy in Egypt and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even made a speech in Cairo, where she called on the Egyptian government to fulfill the promise of freedom it has made to its people. But these ambitious words have produced few results. President Bush rejected a bill that sought to tie some of the American assistance to Egypt with democratic reforms. Furthermore, Ayman Nour — a leading democracy activist and Egyptian member of parliament who was thrown in jail following his attempt to challenge President Mubarak on the campaign trail — was not even mentioned following the Mubarak-Cheney meeting. In fact, when Mr. Nour was arrested, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Francis J. Ricciardone, declined to comment, giving a subtle green light for the president to accelerate his crackdown. 

These sounds of silence and the lack of U.S. response send the wrong signal to Cairo and to democracy activists across the Middle East. America’s tolerance for Mr. Mubarak’s intolerance will contribute nothing positive to the future of the region. The United States must end its silence on Egypt and act while it still can. 
Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.

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