When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund met in Washington in September, President Husni Mubarak was on hand to speak about the Third World debt crisis. For more than a year, Cairo has been negotiating a new $500 million agreement with the IMF that would allow Egypt to reschedule $10 billion worth of debt payments falling due before December 1990. At one stage Mubarak denounced the IMF as a “quack doctor,” but his government has had to swallow many IMF “reform” prescriptions. (Currency devaluations, for instance, have tripled the Egyptian pound value of dollar-denominated debt contracted in the early 1980s.)
IMF representatives are pressing for still more concessions, which the government fears could lead to a social explosion. Mubarak is cracking down hard at the first signs of unrest and dissent. According to Amnesty International, the six weeks from the beginning of August to the middle of September saw over a thousand arrests and detention without charges under the terms of September 1981 Emergency Regulations proclaimed by Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat. Many of these arrests have involved alleged supporters of Islamist organizations, but in the most significant incident security forces attacked workers at the country’s largest factory complex and subsequently arrested and beat scores of human rights activists who campaigned for the release of the workers.
This is the sequence of developments: On August 1, workers at the Helwan Iran and Steel complex southwest of Cairo began a sit-down strike, chiefly over demands for higher allowances. The workers did not interfere with production, in order to avoid charges of subversion. Nevertheless, at dawn on August 2, Minister of Interior Zaki Badr ordered security forces to storm the factory, using live ammunition. At least one worker, ‘And al-Hai Muhammad Sulaiman, was killed, and more than a dozen wounded; some 500-600 were arrested. One who escaped on August 2, Muhammad Mustafa Ibrahim, turned himself in on August 6. He was one of two elected worker representatives on the company’s board.
On August 9, a prisoner from Abu Za‘bal prison, in court for a parole hearing, told lawyers he had seen Mustafa Ibrahim and another prisoner being carried back to their cells after interrogation. When Mustafa was brought before state prosecutors the next day, Amnesty states, “he could barely walk and he had numerous visible wounds…to his head, nose and left leg.” He told prosecutors that he had been beaten and tortured in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to confess that a “secret organization” had fomented the Helwan strike.
News of this in the opposition press stirred public concern. Human rights activists from the Egyptian Bar Association and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) were already investigating the steelworkers’ arrests. (Weeks later the whereabouts of many workers was still unknown.) The activists, along with journalists, trade unionists and opposition political figures, formed a committee to support the imprisoned workers.
Beginning on the night of August 23-24, some 63 of these supporters were arrested; 39 of them were members of the Tagammu‘ (National Progressive Unionist Party). The state charged most of the 63 as members in an illegal organization — the Egyptian Communist Workers’ Party. On the morning of August 28, a group of Central Security Police and other security persons in civilian clothes entered the cells in Abu Za‘ball prison where the human rights activists were being held and beat them with clubs, canes and electric truncheons. Among those beaten were Dr. Muhammad al-Sayyid Sa’id, a senior researcher at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the executive committee of the EOHR. Another was Midhat al-Zahid, an editor of the opposition newspaper, Al-Ahali. The prisoners say that prison officials watched the beatings, “which were apparently directed by plainclothes officers from the State Security Intelligence Police” and were administered not to force confessions or extract information but “to punish, intimidate and injure.”
An Amnesty account dated September 20 reports that nearly all the steelworkers have now been released without charge. Many of the human rights activists were released provisionally after about two weeks, but are still under indictment. Others still being held had not yet been questioned about their alleged offenses.
Calls for Interior Minister Badr’s resignation have gone unheeded. Mubarak apparently finds it useful to have Badr take the heat for the abuses, while at the same time intimidating the nascent human rights movement in Egypt, promoting the notion that the Helwan strike had been fomented by “outside elements,” and preempting popular opposition to any new agreement with the IMF.
These events coincided with a state visit to Cairo by the ruler of Kuwait. On August 24, the Kuwaiti press reported the Amir would be signing a $35 million soft loan for development of the Helwan complex.
It is unlikely that the Amir interceded with President Mubarak on behalf of the activists, if Kuwait’s own record is any indication. Back in February 1989, the Ministry of Information there circulated instructions to all the country’s media prohibiting them from publishing or broadcasting any words of Dr. Suad al-Sabah, or even mentioning her name in reports on social or cultural events. Suad al-Sabah is a poet, essayist and human rights activist — MERIP honored her at our 15th Anniversary celebration in 1986 “for her courageous efforts to advance the realm of civil society in the Arab world, and her special commitment to the cause of human rights and women’s rights in the region.” Index on Censorship reports that Kuwaiti authorities have confiscated copies of Arab newspapers and magazines that have interviewed Dr. al-Sabah or carried her syndicated column; under the constitution of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the ban automatically extends to all Gulf countries. Friends of Dr. al-Sabah in the region have told us they strongly suspect that Saudi pressure was responsible for the Kuwaiti move. Since most Arab media do not want to jeopardize their Gulf markets, the ban has effectively silenced Dr. al-Sabah throughout the Arab world.
On July 13, in Vienna, gunmen killed Dr. ‘And al-Rahman Ghassemlou, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and two associates. Iran and Iraq have accused each other of the assassination: Ghassemlou had distanced the KDPI from its wartime alliance with Iraq, and had angered other groups in the Iranian opposition by his willingness to negotiate with Tehran. But the Iranian officials meeting with Ghassemlou at the time of his murder have “made themselves unavailable to assist the Austrian police,” according to Amnesty International. Iranian opposition figures tell us that they believe an intransigent faction in the Iranian government is probably behind the murders.
Ghassemlou was first elected secretary-general of the KDPI in 1971. He combined militance and scholarship, origin in one of Iranian Kurdistan’s leading tribal families and a commitment to Kurdish autonomy in the framework of a democratic Iran. His broad progressive vision and principled commitment to democratic solutions will be missed by Kurds, Iranians and fighters for justice everywhere.