As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government brutally cracks down on Egyptians campaigning for democracy and political reform in Cairo, global business leaders are gathering today in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el- Sheikh to discuss "the new positive dynamics in the region's politics" at the World Economic Forum's annual Middle East meeting.
These corporate leaders should use their influence to let Mubarak, who will open the forum, know that his systematic repression of peaceful dissent will alienate not only the human rights community, but also the investors whose support is critical to Egypt's future.
A year ago when the Davos-based organization decided to hold its meeting in Egypt, few could have predicted the dramatic reversal of what then seemed like genuine first steps toward political liberalization. Under pressure from Washington, the Egyptian government allowed political demonstrations calling for an end to Mubarak's 25 years of one-man rule.
Ahead of the September presidential election, Mubarak promised not to renew the hated emergency laws that have allowed the government to restrict basic rights like freedom of speech and assembly, and to detain more than 15,000 men without charge indefinitely, some for decades. Although the election predictably returned Mubarak's supporters to power, the campaign period itself saw a degree of debate and criticism of government policies not seen in more than 50 years.
Today, hopes for political reform lay trampled under the boots of security forces sent out to crush peaceful dissent. This week, on several occasions, thousands of police flooded downtown Cairo, brutally beat scores of non-violent protestors, and arrested hundreds of them. Plainclothes state security agents assaulted demonstrators protesting the government's prosecution of two judges who had dared to demand judicial independence. The judges had also refused to certify the November parliamentary elections, on grounds of extensive voter fraud and intimidation.
Other protestors were arrested for putting up leaflets protesting the government's two-year extension of the emergency laws on April 30. Like his vow not to renew these laws, Mubarak has cast aside his earlier promises of reform. Instead, the government has backtracked on efforts to establish the rule of law and basic rights like free speech and assembly.
While deploying massive numbers of troops to quash protests in Cairo, the government has failed to deliver a draft of a long-awaited counterterrorism law. Indeed, it seems to spend more time attacking demonstrators and silencing critics than working to prevent terrorist attacks, like last month's bombing in Dahab, the third such attack on a Sinai resort in less than two years.
It's not just human rights activists who fret about such political volatility. As a one-time corporate lawyer with more than a decade of experience in finance and investment banking, I know that stability and the rule of law count heavily in the investment decisions of business people. In its own blueprint for Middle East economic reform, the World Economic Forum has called on governments to strengthen the independence of judiciaries. As its former Middle East director made clear, "transparency, rule of law, good governance and eradicating corruption are standards that are not really negotiable in the 21st century."
Across the Arab world, the lack of democracy, good governance and free speech has resulted in moribund countries with few prospects for economic growth, except for those endowed with oil. In Egypt, 52 years of one-party rule has fueled corruption and economic mismanagement, leading to the increasing alienation of educated youth with no job prospects.
Global business leaders meeting at the World Economic Forum meeting have a chance to do what Egypt prevents its own citizens from freely doing: Call on Hosni Mubarak to end the government's attack on peaceful critics and embark on the reforms that Egypt's economy and society desperately need.
Sarah Leah Whitson is Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. From 1991 to 2004, she was a lawyer at Goldman Sachs and Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton.