Egyptian Human Rights Activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim Defies Threats, Arrests to Challenge U.S.-Backed Mubarak Government

StoryOctober 10, 2007
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In Egypt, the government of President Hosni Mubarak is in the midst of one of the largest crackdowns against public dissent in a decade. Democracy Now! recently sat down with Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s leading human rights activists and the founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Ibrahim talks about the pro-democracy movement in Egypt and the challenges it faces up against the U.S.-backed government of Hosni Mubarak. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Egypt, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak is in the midst of one of the largest crackdowns against public dissent in a decade. Seven journalists have been given prison sentences in recent weeks for criticizing Mubarak’s government. More than a thousand activists of the popular opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, languish in prison. Labor organizers involved in a wave of strikes at government-owned factories have been detained. Amidst the crackdown, Egyptian police and internal security forces are increasingly being accused of widespread brutality and torture of prisoners. On Sunday, 23 independent and opposition daily newspapers refused to publish in protest of the clampdown on journalists. Despite heavy criticism of its human rights record, the Egyptian government continues to receive strong support from Washington, D.C. and is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is one of Egypt’s leading human rights activists and the founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. He was convicted in 2001 for preparing slanderous reports about Egypt and receiving unauthorized funds from overseas. The ruling sparked a storm of international condemnation. He was acquitted on all charges in 2003. I recently met with Saad Eddin Ibrahim at the Carter Center in Atlanta, where he had been one of a dozen human rights defenders from around the world gathered there. We spoke about the current situation in Egypt and his own story. I began asking him about why he feared that if he returned to Egypt he would be arrested.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Well, I have been critical of President Mubarak and his regime, and it was a peaceful criticism, presenting a different point of view on public policy and on some of his actions to install his — or to groom his son to succeed him after 26 years of being a ruler of Egypt, the third-longest ruler in our history, in 6,000-year history. And yet, he wants to groom his son to succeed him. And I blew the whistle simply on that.

I also blew the whistle on his attempt to eliminate any potential contenders or competitors with his son, including, you know, some journalists who are disappeared, including the nephews of the late President Anwar al-Sadat, who are about the same age as his son and who also are politically active, and they are potential contenders. And he stripped them of their parliamentary immunity. They were members of Parliament, elected for the second time. So he is trying to eliminate everybody. And in the process, he tried to eliminate me, as well. And we have heard rumors, rampant rumors in the country, that there is a death squad attached to the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: A death squad?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: A death squad. That explains cases of disappearances, unresolved case of disappearances, despite time lapses. And it is said that it is a death squad that resorted to these extralegal methods to eliminate opposition. And when I mentioned that in a newspaper article just to ask the government to speak on the subject, to tell us whether there is one or not, and if there isn’t, to deny it, and if there isn’t, why these cases of disappearance caused? The disappearances have not been resolved, despite the years that have passed by. So, because they could not answer these questions, they decided just to eliminate me, as well. And it showed all kind of things.

AMY GOODMAN: Your recent piece, “Egypt’s Unchecked Repression” —


AMY GOODMAN: — begins, “This month marks the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of the Egyptian journalist Reda Hilal.” Who was Reda Hilal?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: He was, again, a journalist. He was actually the deputy chief editor of our daily newspaper called Al-Ahram. And he, again, spoke critically of the presidential family and especially of Gamal Mubarak, who is being groomed. So, this was in a cocktail party, but I think the criticism was a little bit off-color about his sexual preferences, and the following day he disappeared.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe Egypt to us? I mean, you also live here. You know Americans and Americans’ views of Egypt. I think very few people understand what is happening there. Describe your country.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: My country is a great country, old civilization, the cradle of one of the greatest set of attainments in mankind. But despite its greatness as a country, as a society, as a culture, it has a terrible political regime, and we are trying to change the regime or to make it more democratic. And the regime is resisting and, as I said, eliminating anyone who is too loud-voiced or who is credible enough to be listened to.

And it is a struggle, like struggle in other Third World countries between the forces of democracy and the forces of autocracy and the forces of theocracy. We have a three-way struggle in our country. We, as democrats, are fighting both the autocrats and the theocrats. And in that fight, it is — we sometimes feel lonely, as if we are crying in the wilderness, because, unfortunately, countries like the United States and some other Western powers have been supporting the autocrats for the sake of stability. So here we are, tied in this three-way fight, but the autocrats are getting the help from Western allies like the United States and western Europe, and we, as democrats, had hoped that established democracies around the world will come to our help, to our aid, not by guns or planes, but just simply by withholding their support of the autocrats, so the democrats at least can have a fair fight with their two other adversaries.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Ayman Nour, the presidential candidate.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Oh, again, one of the very serious contenders is exactly the same age as Gamal Mubarak and more popular and has been tested in the street and has been — again, had been elected twice to Parliament as an independent without the ruling party support. Actually, he was opposing the ruling party, and therefore everybody felt that in a two-way contest between him and Gamal Mubarak, Gamal Mubarak will not have a chance. And therefore, the regime seemed to have decided to eliminate him, as well. They couldn’t exactly do to him what they did toward Hilal, because of his notoriety and because he has a political party behind him, so they drummed up some charges against him and put him behind bars, something that they did with me seven years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: The prosecution witness, one of them, Ayman Hassan, recanted his testimony, said he was forced by security forces.


AMY GOODMAN: And we just got word that he was found dead, apparently in a suicide in his prison cell, according to the police.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Ayman Hassan.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Uh-huh, the other. Well, that is also another standard thing that they do. And that’s why my lawyers and my family were concerned, because with frequent mentions of detainees or prisoners who committed suicide in their cells, which seemed to be too — what is the word? — too suspicious that so many dissidents commit suicide in prison. The common — popular, at least — narrative is that these are people who are killed in prison, and then the official statement will say they committed suicide.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you seven years ago?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Well, I was arrested, again, on the day I published this article blowing the whistle on the scheme of grooming sons to follow their fathers, not just in Egypt, but I was mentioning the Arab world at large, our neighbors, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. All of these countries have had dictators who have ruled for a minimum of 20 years and were grooming their children to succeed them. And I, you know, coined a new term, a hybrid form of governance, which is in name a republican but in essence a monarchy. And this new term was the title of my article. So the day the article appeared was this title, ”al-Gumlukia: The Contribution of Arabs to Politics in the 21st Century,” was the day that appeared in the morning, I was arrested at midnight. And I was detained for two months, and then I was indicted, tried, condemned — or convicted and sentenced to seven years, out of which I spent three years before my appeals were accepted and I was tried before the high court. And it was the high court that acquitted me and acquitted 27 of my colleagues in the Ibn Khaldun Center of all the charges leveled against us by the state. That’s what happened seven years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the state of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Determined, but small, in terms of numbers, because we don’t have access to the state media, nor do we have access to the mosques. So, compared to our two adversaries, the autocrats who control the media and the theocrats who control the mosques, and the mosques means you have access to your constituency every Friday and sometimes five times a day, because in Islam there are five collective prayers at the mosque, so the theocrats, they have access to their constituency all the time. The autocrats, by virtue of controlling the state television, state radio, all the major newspapers, they have access also.

But we, as democrats, have to really engage in an uphill fight to reach our audience, potential audience. We believe, however, that the majority is with us, and we construe that on the basis of the absentees when there are elections or referendums. 77 percent in the last parliamentary elections stayed home, did not vote, because they did not want any of the alternatives, the autocrats or the theocrats. So they stayed home, absentee.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the largest parliamentary bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: They have 20 percent of the seats in Parliament; out of 455, they have 88 seats, and that constitutes roughly about 20 percent. They are organized. They are also determined. And in fact, even as democrats, even though we oppose them ideologically and intellectually, but yet we welcome their participation in politics as usual, would rather have them compete and would rather compete with them with the ballot box than force them underground and make them resort to violence. So that is our line. That is our position on them, a position, again, that is not shared necessarily by the Mubarak regime, and they think that we are flirting with them, not that this position is predicated on principle. Principle is if you’re in a democratic system, it tends to be inclusive, so long as players abide by the rules of the game. And that is our position.

AMY GOODMAN: You met with President Bush in June?





SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: In a conference on democracy and security.

AMY GOODMAN: What did he tell you?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Well, he addressed the audience, the people who are participant in the conference. And, if I may, the conference was organized by all dissidents from Central and Eastern Europe. Vaclav Havel, a great writer and who became —

AMY GOODMAN: Former president.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Former president of the Czech Republic. And people like José Aznar of Spain, people like Natan Sharansky, who was a Soviet dissident, and now he’s an Israeli politician. And so, they wanted a reunion of their own, but also they invited dissidents from the third world, from China, from the Middle East, from Latin America, from everywhere. So this was a meeting of dissidents.

And President Bush dropped in and addressed the meeting. And among other things, he said, you know, I think half-playfully, “I am dissident, like you. I am a dissident in Washington, because the bureaucracy seems to be against my agenda for democracy promotion, and that’s why it hasn’t moved as speedily as I wished, but I am determined to carry on. I still have 18 months,” at the time he said, “and I’m going to keep pushing. So don’t lose hope. We are supporting you, and we are with you, and we will do everything we can.” So that was in the public meetings.

In the one on one after he gave the speech, he met a few of us. He repeated the same thing, that he’s a dissident in Washington. And he asked me about the situation in Egypt and what the United States can do. And I give him my, again, few proposals.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you say?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Basically, to follow the Helsinki Accord formula. The Helsinki Accord was in 1975, when the NATO countries, or the Western countries, knowing that the Soviet bloc were in dire need for aid and for trade and for technology from the West, said, “Yes, we will give you all the above in return for relaxing your restrictions on civil society and respecting human rights and allowing more freedom of speech and freedom of movement and migration.” And the Soviets, because of their, again, dire need for aid, said, “Yes, we will do that,” and they signed. That’s the Helsinki Accord.

I think that’s now, among observers and historians, they think that was really the first nail on the coffin of totalitarianism, because within 10 years from signing the Helsinki Accord, we began to see the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, peacefully. And I was calling for the same thing: condition your aid to Egypt and to other autocratic countries or autocratic regimes on opening up their systems and allowing more freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about —- well, Egypt and Israel are the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid of the world -—


AMY GOODMAN: And why? Why is Egypt important to the United States?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: It is important to the United States, partly because it is the first Arab country to initiate and to engage in a peace process with Israel. So the aid to Egypt was in part a reward for the late President Sadat’s regime for having taken that step and in the hope that it will entice other Arab countries to follow suit. And, in fact, Jordan followed suit, and other countries are, in a way, beginning to see that and to emulate it. So that is why —

As for Israel, Israel is strong and a favorite ally of the United States, from the time it was created back in 1948, and has been the primary recipient of sustained foreign aid. Egypt came into this in 1977 after President Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem. So Egypt was a newcomer to this American largesse. So the two countries together, in order to stay on the peace track, have maintained a high level of receiving American aid, Israel a bit more than Egypt, but these are the two biggest recipients of American foreign aid.

AMY GOODMAN: You also write about Islamophobia and Mubarak; explain.

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Right, right. He is taking advantage of the fear in the West after 9/11 of Islamists by claiming that he is the bulwark or the defender of secularism in Egypt and in the Arab world against the Islamists. And, unfortunately, the West seemed to have swallowed this claim, this false claim, because the Islamists keep increasing their constituency anyhow as a result of the corruption and the inefficiency of this autocratic regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Saad Eddin Ibrahim —


AMY GOODMAN: You have said that if you go back to Egypt, you could well be arrested. So why return?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Well, because that’s where my fight is. That’s my country. I don’t want to give up the right of going back to my home country. And I’m fighting my battle there, because that’s a battlefield. I just want a fair fight, not a fight under the specter of being imprisoned without completing my mission, my role, my advocacy. There’s a lot of people in Egypt who are looking to me and to people like myself to lead their good generation into a better life for Egypt and a better future for the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s leading human rights activists, founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Egypt. I spoke to him in Atlanta at the Carter Center.

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