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Rights and the War on Terror
An Interview with Saad
Issandr El Amrani
Feb. 14, 2002
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 freepending a retrialon
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.
Issandr El Amrani
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, whoas a leader of the Egyptian People's Committee
for Solidarity with the Palestinian Uprisinghad 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
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
WPR: How do you feel?
I feel dizzy, I feel Twilight-Zoned, but I feel happy to be
WPR: How's your health?
A: 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.
WPR: Will you be able to?
A: I don't know, I haven't asked the government yet. But of
course I will apply, and I hope they will agree.
WPR: 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?
A: Well you know, I did promise themunder duressthat
I will never do anything without their approval. But that was
a promise under duressI think I can probably absolve myself.
WPR: What were your impressions of
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.
A: 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 learnespecially after 9/11. I appreciated
thateven 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.
WPR: What was your relationship with
Islamist political prisoners as a secular rights activist?
A: 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 aboutthat everybody's
innocent. I was the only one who wasn't innocent. I have done
everything that the government was saying I didthe 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 prisonand 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
WPR: How did you get to meet them?
Issandr El Amrani
A: One way of communicating with them was through the few micro-enterprises
that they were allowed to have in prisonlike 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
WPR: How much effect do you think your
case had on civil society?
A: 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 conferenceWPR].
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.
WPR: How much do you think the world
has changed since Sept. 11?
A: 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 comeboth
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 superpowerAmerica
or any other one.
WPR: What about human rights after
A: 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.
WPR: Given the changes in the United States, is there a danger
that less pressure will be put on Egypt over human rights cases?
A: 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.