Lynne Stewart is a New York attorney who is serving a 10-year sentence in the federal penitentiary for being a supporter of terrorism.
Two years after the 9/11 attacks, she read the following message from her client, convicted terrorist Omar Abdel-Rahman, at a press conference in New York City:
“I [Omar Abdel-Rahmn] am not withdrawing my support of the cease-fire, I am merely questioning it and I am urging you, who are on the ground there to discuss it and to include everyone in your discussions as we always have done.”
What’s criminal about that message?
The U.S. federal courts construed the message as exhorting the members of Abdel-Rahmn’s Islamic organization in Egypt, which U.S. officials had labeled a terrorist organization, to use violence to overthrow the Egyptian government. They said that made Stewart a supporter of terrorism.
The case is fascinating on several levels, not the least of which was that many Egyptian citizens were of the mindset that the Egyptian government was one of the most brutal, tyrannical military dictatorships in the world, one that had long oppressed the Egyptian people. It was, in fact, that deep-seated discontent among the Egyptian citizenry that ultimately led to the ouster of Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
So, why is that important?
It’s always been a belief of Americans that people everywhere have a right to use violence to overthrow tyranny. Stewart was convicted for going one step further and actually exhorting the Egyptians to use force to overthrow the tyrannical regime under which they had long suffered.
Let’s assume, hypothetically, that what Stewart did at that press conference was stand up and read the Declaration of Independence, specifically the following section:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
If she had done that, there is no way that the federal courts could have convicted her. After all, the Declaration of Independence is part of America’s heritage of freedom. It’s not against the law to read it in public.
Suppose she had added the following sentence: “The principles of the Declaration are not limited to Americans. They apply to people in every nation on earth who are suffering from tyranny.”
Could she then have been convicted? Again, I think that it would have been very difficult to convict her for supporting terrorism by simply extending the principles of the Declaration to people everywhere.”
Where Stewart crossed the line was in exhorting Egyptians to actually do what the Declaration says they have a right to do — use force to overthrow the Egyptian government.
So, why is that against the law? After all, one could rationally think that under principles of free speech, a person should be free to exhort people to do anything they want. After all, this is America, not Russia under Vladimir Putin, where people are being convicted for saying the wrong things.
There is one big reason why Stewart is in jail today for exhorting Egyptians to violently overthrow their government: The Egyptian government was a longtime ally and partner of the U.S. government and, therefore, wasn’t considered by U.S. officials to be a tyrannical regime that would trigger the right that Jefferson enunciated in the Declaration. Any American (or Egyptian) who would use violence to overthrow a non-tyrannical, pro-U.S. regime or exhort others to violently overthrow that regime is considered to be a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism.
Among the things that the Egyptian people hated most about Mubarak’s military dictatorship were the “emergency” powers enforced by Mubarak and his military, police, and intelligence forces. Such powers had come into existence some 30 years before, when Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated. The “emergency” enabled Mubarak, who was a military man, to use the Egyptian military to arrest people without warrants on suspicion of being terrorists, incarcerate them, torture them, and execute them — all without due process of trial or trial by jury.
These extraordinary powers were supposed to be temporary. They were to expire when the “emergency” arising from the assassination had expired. But some 30 years later, they were still in existence. And they were employed brutally against the Egyptian people, especially those who dared to challenge Egypt’s military dictatorship, military supremacy over the civilian population, and Egypt’s military dictator himself, Hosni Mubarak. Most Egyptians learned to just keep their mouths shut.
Not surprisingly, the Egyptians considered the exercise of such powers to be the hallmarks of a tyrannical regime. Indeed, such powers have long been the most distinguishing characteristic of a tyrannical regime. It was mainly the exercise of those “temporary, emergency” powers that drove Egyptians into the streets, risking their lives at the hands of the military dictatorship to bring fundamental change to their society.
In fact, one of the principal demands of the protestors throughout the protests was that Mubarak relinquish those “temporary, emergency” powers that came into existence 30 years before. Mubarak refused to do so, arguing that his temporary, extraordinary powers were more necessary than ever, especially given the global war on terrorism that came into existence on 9/11.
For those entire 30 years, the U.S. government took the side of Mubarak and his military dictatorship. Those temporary, emergency powers weren’t tyrannical, U.S. officials believed. They were instead the essential prerequisite for protecting Egypt’s “national security” and for maintaining “order and stability” in the Middle East.
After all, don’t forget that immediately after 9/11, President Bush did precisely what Mubarak had done during Egypt’s terrorist emergency some 30 years before. Bush decreed that the terrorist emergency that America was now facing meant that Bush, as commander in chief, now wielded those same extraordinary powers — the powers to arrest people as suspected terrorists without judicially issued warrants, torture them, incarcerate them indefinitely, and even execute them, perhaps have some sort of kangaroo military tribunal. Later, President Obama would expand those powers with a widespread assassination program.
Thus, how could U.S. officials look upon the Mubarak dictatorship as a tyrannical regime, since it was a loyal, pro-U.S. regime that was doing nothing more than what U.S. officials would do in similar circumstances?
It goes without saying, of course, that throughout those 30 years, U.S. officials continued plowing billions of dollars in cash and armaments into the coffers of the Egyptian military dictatorship, helping build it up and fortify its omnipotent military control over the Egyptian people. In fact, it came as no surprise when the U.S. government made the Egyptian military dictatorship one of its principal rendition-torture partners in its global war on terrorism.
Throughout the Mubarak dictatorship, if anyone called for the violent overthrow of the Egyptian government, the Egyptian government, not surprisingly, considered him a “bad guy” — i.e., a terrorist. But as Lynn Stewart found out, so did the U.S. government.
Now, one might point to Syria, where U.S. officials are doing precisely what Stewart got convicted of — exhorting the Syrian citizenry to violently overthrow the Syrian dictatorship.
Ah, but they would be missing an important point. Syria is no longer a partner and ally of the U.S. government. It used to be — i.e., when President Bush and the CIA entered into a secret torture partnership by which the Assad regime agreed to torture Canadian citizen Maher Arar for the U.S. government. But once that partnership was dissolved, it became okay for U.S. officials to exhort Syrians to violently overthrow the tyranny under which they have long suffered.
For exhorting the Egyptian people to violently overthrow their tyrannical regime, Stewart got sentenced to serve 28 months in jail, a fairly lengthy term for a 73-year-old woman suffering from breast cancer. Unfortunately for Stewart, however, in a public statement to the press after her sentencing, she scoffed at her sentence, declaring that she could serve it “standing on her head.” Her statement garnered the wrath of federal prosecutors and federal judges and earned her a resentencing, one that sent her away for 10 years instead of 28 months.
I wonder if Stewart has learned her lesson, one that the Egyptian people learned during the 30 years of the Mubarak dictatorship. In the age of the national-security state and never-ending emergencies, it pays to keep your mouth shut.