Egyptian Human-Rights Activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim

Mirror of a Movement

Issandr El Amrani, Cairo, Egypt, March 31, 2003

Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Recently acquitted Egyptian human-rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim (Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP).
The word “ebullient” seems barely adequate to describe the atmosphere in the austere Cairo courtroom where Egyptian democracy activist and sociology professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim was acquitted on March 18.

For many in the courtroom—family members, lawyers, human-rights activists, diplomats, and journalists—Ibrahim’s meandering through the Egyptian court system over the last three years had become an intimate affair, one in which they shared the tribulations as well as the moments of vindication and triumph. Ibrahim was first arrested in 2000 along with 27 members of his research institute, the Ibn Khaldun Center for Social Studies. He was accused of tarnishing Egypt's reputation, embezzling European Union funds, and receiving funds from overseas without permission. The ordeals that Ibrahim and his colleagues endured since, including Ibrahim's eight-month prison sentence, have become symbolic of Egyptian civil society’s wider struggle against a regime that is increasingly intolerant of criticism.

First and foremost, the Ibn Khaldoun case has focused attention on the growing crisis in the Egyptian judiciary, which takes pride in an independence from the executive rare in the Middle East. Over the last decade, particularly as the Egyptian regime made use of decades-old Emergency Laws to combat Islamist groups, authorities have made increasing use of a parallel court system of State Security, State Security Emergency, and Military Courts. By the time Ibrahim was arrested in summer 2000, these courts had become the norm rather than the exception for high profile cases.

It was a State Security Court—the least stringent of these exceptional tribunals—that twice sentenced Ibrahim to seven years in prison. The Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appellate court, twice overthrew the verdict on procedural grounds, then took up the case itself in a final appeal for Ibrahim, and eventually cleared him of all charges.

“This court has restored my faith in Egyptian justice,” Ibrahim told journalists when the verdict came out. “The verdict says the State Security Courts must go, because they are a scandal in the face of Egypt.”

Ibrahim’s case has sparked leading judges to write a series of passionate op-eds about the importance of an independent judiciary. Although originally paralyzed by the arrest of its most prominent representative, Egyptian civil society now seems to have rallied around the case to argue for more political freedom.

“[The case] has had a chilling effect on civil society,” Ibrahim told World Press Review online during a long interview at his home in the posh Cairo suburb of Maadi on the day before the verdict came out. “Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) either closed down completely or ‘downsized’ their activities. However, in the medium run, people became more assertive and outspoken. More and more people came out, especially after they saw the international support that was pouring in.”

Public support for Ibrahim at the beginning of his ordeal was slow in coming. The affair was relegated to the crime pages of most Egyptian newspapers, which carried out a campaign of slander against the activist. Few Egyptian intellectuals publicly supported him either—perhaps because by his own admission Ibrahim had been close to the inner circles of the Egyptian government—he knows the presidential family personally and wrote speeches for Egypt’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, whose Masters’ thesis he supervised.

“In the beginning, many people were afraid,” Ibrahim said. “That’s typical of Third World countries where there is authoritarian rule. A few years ago, an Iraqi dissident by the name of Kanan Makiya wrote a book called The Republic of Fear. The situation in Egypt is not different from that of Iraq, except in degree. It was only after some time passed that some people started taking more courageous steps, signing declarations and so on—especially after they saw the international support that was pouring in. They felt ashamed of themselves.”

The academic, who holds dual U.S.-Egyptian nationality, said that even official support from the U.S. government was slow in coming. Indeed, many Egyptian rights activists believed that the State Department was reluctant to push the Mubarak government on human-rights issues.

“The U.S. government stood by me only in the third year—not in the first year, not in the second year,” he noted. “They only stood by me when they saw that I had world support among civil society and human-rights circles. The first time George W. Bush’s administration spoke publicly on my behalf was Aug. 15, 2001—exactly two years and three months after I was arrested. Before that, there was nothing to speak of.”

Ibrahim not only taught Suzanne Mubarak, but also her son Gamal, who is now a rising star in Egyptian politics.

Some suspect that Ibrahim’s criticism of Arab leaders who groom their sons for power may have landed him in trouble. The day before his arrest, he had written an article in an international Arabic newspaper warning of the dangers of "gomloukiya"—a term he coined from the Arabic words for "republic," gomhouriya, and "monarchy," malakiya. He wrote that what happened in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad took over his father Hafez’s presidency, should not happen in Egypt.

Ibrahim now says that he would not oppose Gamal Mubarak’s ascension if it means that democratic reforms are implemented. The younger Mubarak has made much noise in recent months about reforming the ruling National Democratic Party, where he took up an important new policy-making post last September, and last week even suggested that the State Security Court system should be scrapped.

“It depends on how he would become president,” Ibrahim said. “If it is part of a package of reform, he could be as decent and as good a president as any. And the package for political reform would include constitutional change to make the presidential choice a result of competitive elections, not by plebiscite but by direct voting, freedom to establish political parties, doing away with the laws restricting the establishment of NGOs and civil society—this is the package. If he runs on that package, I’ll be the first to vote for him. But the way he comes in will make all the difference.”

Democratization is an issue that is preoccupying many Egyptians at the moment, and not only in their own country. The vast majority of Egyptians have met U.S. intentions to democratize the region, starting with Iraq, with derision and apprehension. On this issue like many others, Ibrahim sees things somewhat differently.

“As a democracy advocate I welcome any initiative, whether it is local, European, or American [to democratize the region],” he says. “Of course, I would like to think this is done more strategically, not tactically and not cynically. I wish they would consult indigenous forces and look for partners instead of imposing from above.”

Ibrahim spent two years in Iraq in the mid-1970s working on a program to modernize to the then-rapidly developing country. He met regularly with Saddam Hussein at the time, whom he admits “impressed” him at the time.

“In retrospect of course,” he said, “I know I contributed to the disaster that came later unwittingly, because part of our work was to attract top scientists and engineers to Iraq.”

Ibrahim, one of the Arab world’s most respected academics, is currently working on his autobiography as well as a book on the months he spent in prison—often in the company of some of Egypt’s most famous political prisoners, such as the Islamist fundamentalists who assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. He also hopes to eventually be able to reopen the Ibn Khaldoun Center and continue his democracy work.

But his priority will be his health, which has rapidly deteriorated since he suffered from several mini-strokes during his incarceration. Although his Egyptian doctors have advised him to seek specialized medical aid in the United States, he was banned from leaving Egypt while his trial was still in process. He is scheduled to travel as soon as possible, but is waiting for the Egyptian government to return his confiscated passports: He is making it a point of pride to travel on his Egyptian, rather than U.S., passport.

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