In Egypt, stability tops democracy

Egypt 2006

By Darryl Levings

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt – Visibly nettled, the prime minister of Egypt leaned over the table at me.

"This is not a police state," the silver-haired, one-time technocrat Ahmed Nazif snapped.

OK, then how about police state lite?

Nazif was responding to a question, which had been prefaced by my examples of ham-fisted tactics by the nation's security apparatus, such as the death of 30 Sudanese refugees - many of them women and children - when police broke up a sit-in on Dec. 30. Many have called it a massacre. The prime minister noted that no shots had been fired and that many officers had been hurt by flying bottles.

Also, leading Egyptian moderates contend that presidential candidate Ayman Nour was humiliated and beaten in a public square early this year before being jailed on trumped-up forgery charges.

"I think he was given all his rights," Nazif insisted.

Four days later I had another question, one he didn't have a chance to answer:

In a country that has received almost $60 billion is U.S. aid, loves its reputation as a key player in Middle East peace initiatives and was supposed to be moving toward democracy - why was I running down the street from riot police, government thugs and one black-uniformed officer angrily gesturing for my camera?

Two blocks away, the demonstration had been tiny and peaceful, but under an apparently never-ending emergency provision, the government can crack down on any assembly, and those repeated protests outside the High Court seemed to have the regime rattled.

Hundreds were arrested last week, a scene that played out again Thursday.