Americans Don’t Know How Good They Have It

CAIRO—“I could be arrested when I leave here,” said a journalist who I met at the tiny Marriott near Cairo’s Tahir Square.  A student activist observed that he could be detained at any time. 

A veteran human rights activist calmly stated:  “Some of our groups will be closed.  Some of us will be imprisoned.  It is inevitable.”

Most foreigners travel to Egypt to play tourist.  I visited with a human rights delegation, reminding me yet again about how lucky Americans—and, indeed, most Westerners—are.

Most important are the basic characteristics of a free society.  The rule of law.  Civil liberties.  Criminal procedures.  Legal safeguards.  Democratic processes. 

Obviously, even nations which purport to have all of these often fall short.  However, few Americans or Europeans, or citizens of democratic Asian nations live in constant fear of arrest, imprisonment, and torture. 

In Egypt the uncertainty began when arriving.  On both of my trips the government knew our delegation was coming.  Both times I was pulled aside. 

On the first trip an entry guard took my passport and I waited for an hour before officials returned it and waved me on.  The second time after far shorter delay security officials formally welcomed me—after asking for my phone number and hotel destination. 

Of course, the U.S. occasionally stops people from entering, but not typically because they want to assess America’s human rights record.  Even after leaving the arrivals area on my first trip I had to wait again while the videographer joining us unsuccessfully attempted to persuade officials to let him bring in his camera. 

Both visits were filled with interviews—relating all sorts of harrowing stories.  Most every society has injustice and errors are sadly common in U.S. jurisprudence.  However, most Americans don’t expect a visit to a friend to turn into a stint in prison.

In Egypt for reasons of political repression and personal revenge people face arbitrary arrest, perpetual detention, fraudulent trials, and horrific imprisonment.  Some of the accounts we heard could be exaggerated or even false, but reports from people in many walks of life and across the political spectrum suggested that the slightest resistance to state authority risks freedom and even life.

Students told us about classmates detained at demonstrations.  Journalists discussed colleagues arrested after criticizing the regime. Attorneys reported on lawyers detained while representing defendants. 

Nor is there any effective oversight or appeal to limit official abuse.  If you are tortured or suffered from inhumane prison conditions, you only can complain to the public prosecutor, which rarely follows up allegations against government officials.  Accountability obviously is less than perfect in the U.S., but here, at least, there are alternative channels of protest:  private lawsuits, media coverage, public demonstrations. 

Evidence of extreme force is everywhere.  Tanks by prisons, armored personnel carriers in city squares and on city streets, barbed wire and armed sentries around sensitive government installations, and a ubiquitous mix of uniformed and plain clothes security personnel.

It is unsettling enough to be stopped by a policeman in the U.S.  It is far worse in Egypt after hearing stories of dubious arrests followed by months of detention.  Yet when two of us were talking after clearing passport control to leave on my second trip a border agent demanded to look at our passports for no obvious reason.

As I pointed out in the Freeman:  “Despite all of the problems faced by those in the West, even imperfectly free societies offer extraordinary advantages which we should never forget.  Walking the streets of Cairo I thought:  there but for the grace of God go I.  With my U.S. passport I could return to a society which, despite great imperfection, nevertheless generally respects people’s lives, liberty, and dignity.”