Egypt Under Mubarak: Years of the Disappeared

Egypt Under Mubarak: Years of the Disappeared

Which country of 80 million is a close ally of America, has jailed 100,000 political prisoners, maintains a police force of 1.4 million — four times the size of its standing army — and is a place where 200 critics of its president have disappeared without a trace since 1990?

If you guessed Egypt, you are right.

Next to Israel, Egypt ranks as the second-largest recipient of American aid, raking in more than $45 billion since 1979. A great deal of this aid has gone to Egypt”s military — which has helped to prop up the dictatorship of President Mubarak for more than a quarter of a century — and into the private bank accounts of a small coterie. With this money, Mr. Mubarak has instilled terror, crushed political dissent, and turned people into ghosts.

On a warm winter evening in Cairo — December 10, 1993 — I first experienced the shock of having someone I knew disappear.

That night, I was waiting for Mansour Kikhia, a journalistic source and friend who had served as Libya”s ambassador to the United Nations and as Muammar Gadhafi”s foreign minister before joining the opposition in exile.

We had agreed to meet after he had taken his evening stroll along the Nile River, and our meeting place was to be the bar at the Intercontinental Hotel, where we both planned to attend a human-rights conference the following day.

He never showed up.

Cell phones were rare back then, so I waited idly, calling his room over and over. By midnight, I had that feeling in my stomach that I had felt before while covering Middle East catastrophes.

Months later, on May 18, 1994, I published an interview in the New York Times with Kikhia”s wife, Bahaa al-Omary, about her struggle with the impossible thought of her husband”s abduction. In the interview, she said she had tried to meet with the two men involved — Mr. Mubarak, who would have had to sanction such an act, and Colonel Gadhafi, who would have had to order it.

Mr. Mubarak didn”t meet with her, but Colonel Gadhafi did, and the Libyan leader had had the temerity to assure her he was prepared to assume all expenses for her four children and herself, including the costs of housing, schooling, and medical care. “I said, ‘No way,”” she told me. “I will not sully … [my husband”s] integrity by accepting money from them.”

For the longest time, she had been silent, she said, thinking, “Maybe I am living in a dream. Maybe they are just groping for a way to let him go without a fuss.” It was not to be. When Kikhia was taken that evening, he was to be tortured and eventually killed. Think of all those who have and will continue to endure such horrible experiences: the children, the spouses, the parents. And think of our close ally: Mr. Mubarak.

The Egyptian regime”s brutal practices have been reported frequently by many different dissidents, but with little or no reprimand from Egypt”s American benefactors.

On Tuesday, Mr. Mubarak”s transgressions were vividly described in a Washington Post article by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the famed professor of sociology at my alma mater, the American University in Cairo, and the chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Political Sociology Center.

Mr. Ibrahim spent three years in jail for criticizing Mr. Mubarak”s rule and the president”s family”s monopoly, and the occasion of the article was Mr. Ibrahim”s fear that he has become a candidate for an upcoming disappearance.

As it happens, Mr. Ibrahim is now a visiting fellow at the Ratiu Center for Democracy in Romania. He had been planning to go home to Cairo at summer”s end, he noted, until Mr. Mubarak”s secret police sent him several emissaries warning him to stay out of Egypt if he knew what was best for him.

While in Romania, Mr. Ibrahim had the opportunity to meet President Bush in a well-publicized get-together of dissidents organized by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet human rights dissident who is now an Israeli political leader.

The encounter went sour as Mr. Ibrahim looked the American president in the eye and asked, “Why are you not helping us?”

Mr. Bush responded that he was himself a “dissident” in Washington.

Cute, but not the answer expected from an American leader who says he champions freedom all over the world.

Maybe we cannot instill democracy in Egypt or Iraq, but after a 25-year alliance with Mr. Mubarak, we should at least be able to make sure he lets Mr. Ibrahim — a democracy advocate who is a naturalized American citizen — go home without being arrested, tortured, or abducted.