42 Days

By Ann Leslie

Cairo’s dirt, dust and habitual cacophony was mercifully filtered out by the trees in the flowery hotel garden of my five-star hotel; the terrace was a delightful place to have afternoon tea, and I’d invited an American-born woman called Barbara to share a fancy cake or two with me. But as soon as she arrived she insisted that we must move from the table I’d selected: ‘Too many people can eavesdrop on us here’. Barbara was not just some expat chum of mine with whom I was meeting for a gossipy natter.

She was, and is, the wife of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a famous Egyptian intellectual, whom, of course, I’d very much wanted to meet to discuss the abuse of human rights under the Mubarak regime. Unfortunately I couldn’t. Saad was in prison, serving a seven year sentence, after being tried by a military tribunal, under the State of Emergency. What had he done? Was he responsible for trying to murder Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, had he fired the gun which shot satirist Farog Foda dead? Had he attempted to assassinate Hosni Mubarak? No. He had merely questioned the regime’s human rights record.

Egypt’s State of Emergency was imposed in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. It has remained in force ever since, despite regime promises to ‘reform’ it. As a foreign correspondent I’ve worked in over 70 countries so far and have seen how regimes like Egypt institute wide-ranging ‘emergency’ laws and then use these laws as a catch-all to detain and imprison those like Saad whose worst crime is simply getting on the regime’s nerves. Smugly, I used to feel immense pride in the certain knowledge that this couldn’t happen in ‘Habeas Corpus’ Britain.

Alas, I was wrong. Our anti-terrorism laws are now being used and abused quite flagrantly for reasons wholly unconnected with terrorism. Worse still, as Liberty points out, citing chapter and verse (including the opposition to the 42-day detention by, among others, two former heads of M15) these myriad new laws do nothing to deter terrorists. In the cause of ‘defending our civil liberties’, the authorities themselves are now busily destroying them. As they say in Egypt: ‘Kifaya!’ Enough!