More than eight months after he was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of illegally accepting foreign funds, sullying Egypt's image abroad, and embezzlement, Egyptian human-rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim walked free—pending a retrial—on Feb. 7. Ibrahim's seven-month trial, which began in November 2000, and his subsequent imprisonment, led international human-rights organizations and Western governments to express concern that the country was backtracking on political reforms. Local activists, who had long warned that the government was strangling civil society with tacit Western approval, were silenced by his arrest.
Egyptian analysts warn that Ibrahim's release should not be seen as a sign that Egypt's aging regime is loosening its hold over civil society. In the months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Western governments have stopped criticizing Egypt for its use of military courts against members of the country's Islamist opposition, a practice that has in recent years spread to secular opposition figures such as Ibrahim. On Sept. 20, government security agents seized publisher Farid Zahran, who—as a leader of the Egyptian People's Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Uprising—had worked to organize a rally commemorating the first anniversary of the most recent Intifada on Sept. 28. After two weeks in prison, the publisher was accused of "disseminating tendentious information aimed at disturbing public order and planning demonstrations," then released on bail on Oct. 4. The planned demonstration was cancelled in his absence.
In mid-October 2001, the government announced that the justices of Egypt's Supreme Military Court, whose verdicts may not be appealed, would try 253 Islamist detainees. The bulk of these were suspected members of the banned Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group). Defense lawyers for the detainees say many had already been held without trial for years and tortured during interrogation. Formerly, such conduct would have drawn censure from Western newspapers and expressions of concern from Western governments. But "Since Sept. 11," as Diaa Rashwan, a researcher at Cairo's government-funded Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies puts it, "The Egyptian government has been very satisfied because Western countries have been convinced at last... that these people are dangerous and should be treated not as activists, but as terrorists, as defined by the Egyptian courts."
Ibrahim, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, is one of the Arab world's most respected academics. Since the 1970s, his research has taken him from groundbreaking studies of Arab society to studies of Egypt's armed Islamists, who waged a civil war against the Mubarak regime throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Through his Ibn Khaldun Center, he has created programs to rehabilitate former members of Egypt's Gamaa Islamiya and reintegrate them into society.
Issandr El Amrani, an editor at the independent Cairo Times, was the first to interview Ibrahim following his release from prison.
World Press Review: How do you feel?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: I feel dizzy, I feel Twilight-Zoned, but I feel happy to be free.
How's your health?
I have a neurological disorder that will show in the way I walk, in the way I hold my coffee. There had been a deterioration, but now it is under control, for the time being. But, of course, [Egyptian doctors] have now reached the ceiling of what they can do [for me]. I need to travel.
Will you be able to?
I don't know, I haven't asked the government yet. But of course I will apply, and I hope they will agree.
Your daughter Randa said that you were going to keep a much lower profile if your family has anything to say about it. What do you have to say about that?
Well you know, I did promise them—under duress—that I will never do anything without their approval. But that was a promise under duress—I think I can probably absolve myself.
I tremble at what's happening in the United States and some Western countries as far as civil liberties are concerned. New emergency laws are being enacted. That makes me shiver.
What were your impressions of prison?
I saw a lot of good-heartedness among prison inmates, among prison guards, prison officials. I could see a lot of desire to learn about the outside world from all levels in the prison. Everyone I met in prison, from the inmates to the highest-ranking official, all want to learn—especially after 9/11. I appreciated that—even though they didn't like a lot of things I had to say given the gung-ho demagoguery in the media. I was trying gradually to give them a different perspective on things.
What was your relationship with Islamist political prisoners as a secular rights activist?
Everybody in prison has a common sympathetic temperament toward everybody else. They're all in the same boat. You get the standard thing that you read about—that everybody's innocent. I was the only one who wasn't innocent. I have done everything that the government was saying I did—the election monitoring, the reporting on human rights in Egypt. So that also was refreshing for them. That kind of simple truth-telling created an immediate rapport with everybody else. But with the Islamists there was a very special relationship. I had studied some of [their cases] 30 years ago in that prison—and they're still there. Even though they've completed their sentence, they're still there. And these people are those that have the leadership and the charisma that influences the bulk and the new generation of Islamists. So when they say Dr. Saad is a good man, the word goes around. How did you get to meet them?
One way of communicating with them was through the few micro-enterprises that they were allowed to have in prison—like a laundromat for example, or an electric shop, or a carpentry shop. The group that tried to assassinate [novelist and Nobel Laureate] Naguib Mahfouz had a tailor's shop; the laundry people were the ones that killed the tourists at the Egyptian Museum. And then you have the assassination-of-Sadat people. Some have heartbreaking stories, like the one Coptic Christian guy who was implicated with the Islamists. He happened to be in the crowd when they were arrested.
How much effect do you think your case had on civil society?
I knew that my case had a dampening, chilling effect on civil society. And there are no reasons to dismiss those pessimistic views. However, being eager for optimism, I had a shot in the arm during the preparation for the Durban conference on racism when I saw how well the Egyptian and the Arab civil society did in that conference [Arab civil society groups campaigned to include condemnation of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians in the Durban conference's final declaration, leading Israel and the United States to withdraw from the conference—WPR]. So my hopes were revived. It was a setback, but they seemed to be recovering and actually making a strong comeback. Whenever the government needs civil society, it will allow it a margin of freedom. And they will always come through. I thought, "Maybe this time the government will not turn its back and will not show its ingratitude again." It's the same old game, they need you, they give you some freedom, and as soon as they get what they want, it's back in the box.
How much do you think the world has changed since Sept. 11?
It seems that it has changed a great deal. But being a social scientist, I know that old trends die hard. Yes, there have been marked changes, but the bulk of the reality [that led to the Sept. 11 attacks] will be with us for a long time to come—both in Egypt and the world at large. These are thick trends; they don't change after one event. The one event, dramatic as it was, did not cause substantial change. One third of the world still goes to bed hungry. Half of the world's population still lives below the poverty level, and the gap between the super-rich and the poorest of the poor is still widening. This has not changed since the events of Sept. 11. But the shape of international relations, as manipulated by the single superpower, is changing. Whether the United States will be able to get what it wants is a big question. Again, from everything I've learned, there will always be resistance to any single superpower—America or any other one.
Photo: Issandr El Amrani
What about human rights after Sept. 11?
I believe we are behind. We [in the Middle East] are the last region to catch up, and we have to do more, otherwise we'll be condemned to backwardness for hundreds of years. That was the case before Sept. 11. Now, my belief that this is the case is only confirmed. We cannot compete in the world in the 21st century without being democrats, without giving civil society its full due, without unleashing the creative power of our people. That was the conviction I had before Sept. 11. What has changed since then is that now there are more people listening to what I have to say. Given the changes in the United States, is there a danger that less pressure will be put on Egypt over human rights cases?
Regardless of my case, I tremble at what's happening in the United States and some Western countries as far as civil liberties are concerned. New emergency laws are being enacted. That makes me shiver. I have already seen authorities in the Third World countries saying, "We told you so. Now you're doing it. When we did it, you criticized us." It is as if this is a license for them to trample over human rights even more blatantly that they did before.