‘I could be arrested when I leave here,” said a journalist whom I met at the tony 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. As a result, I came away with a very different picture than do most foreigners of this fascinating nation.

I also was reminded yet again about how lucky Americans — and, indeed, most Westerners — are. Forget American exceptionalism and manifest destiny.

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 about me since my host organization requested meetings on my delegation’s behalf. Both times I was pulled aside.

The first time 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.

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 were consistent and demonstrated that the slightest resistance to state authority risks freedom and even life.

Attorneys reported on lawyers detained while representing defendants. Family members described the arrest of relatives.

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.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

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