Self-censorship to stay out of prison

Egypt: When a nation jails its best-known rights activist, it sends a certain message.

February 24, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM, one of the most outspoken human rights critics in the Arab world, has finally bowed to an irresistible force: his American-born wife, Barbara, and his daughter Randa. They don't want him to go back to prison.

Ibrahim, 63, was released from Cairo's Tora prison on Feb. 6, after serving more than eight months of a seven-year sentence for charges that stemmed from his work at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which he founded. Specifically, he was convicted of violating a military order prohibiting the use of foreign funds without the government's permission, for publishing articles abroad that "smeared" the government, and for using European Union funds for his personal account.

The American-educated social scientist, who teaches at the American University of Cairo, was released after Egypt's highest appeals court ordered a new trial in his case. The court gave no specific reason; it has until March 6 to do that. The expectation is that the Egyptian government, surprised and embarrassed by the international uproar that erupted after Ibrahim's conviction, will not retry him. Unless, of course, he starts mouthing off again about such things as rigged elections that have helped to keep President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party in power, and discrimination against Egypt's minority population of Coptic Christians.

"My wife and children suffered greatly, really greatly, during this time, and they have asked me to be careful in what I say," explains the professor, sitting back in his office in the Department of Social Sciences at AUC, where he has taught since 1975. Ibrahim, who holds U.S. citizenship, has master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Washington.

Ibrahim was tried in the lowest level of the state security court system established under "emergency laws" enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar el Sadat by Islamic extremists. "State security" has acquired a broad definition in the ensuing years. Ibrahim's supporters believe that in this case it was used not only to punish a prolific critic of the government, but also to send a message to like-minded citizens.

"My arrest had a chilling effect on civil society, human rights and social activists," Ibrahim says, coming close to ignoring his family's admonition. "To get seven years was enough of a message to everybody."

What was the real issue? Ibrahim is reluctant to talk about it. Asked who would have decided to punish him, he shrugs his shoulders, raises both palms upward and rolls his eyes to the ceiling. He smiles. Get it?

It's unlikely that Ibrahim ever would have been arrested without the consent of Mubarak. Egypt works that way. And Mubarak's reasons for wanting to punish Ibrahim appear to have had little to do with nonsense about handling foreign contributions. In the order of corruption in Egypt, his crime in that respect would seem minimal even if he were guilty.

What would have bothered Mubarak were persistent challenges raised by Ibrahim and his center to the legitimacy of parliamentary elections, dominated by Mubarak's party for years. In a bit of marvelous political choreography, the parliament nominates a president and the people are offered a yes-or-no vote on the selection. Since parliament is run by the NDP, the chief is safe. During the 1995 parliamentary elections, Ibrahim's center documented intimidation and violence. Ibrahim was preparing for similar work on the 2000 parliamentary elections when he was arrested in June 2000. The charge of "smearing" Egypt stemmed from reporting on election-rigging abroad.

Mubarak might also be botherd by Ibrahim's writings about the tendency of Arab "republican" regimes to turn power into inheritance. Around the time that Bashar Assad was taking over Syria from his father, Hafez, Ibrahim compared that regime to others including Iraq, Yemen and Libya, arguing that in places like these, long-term presidents begin to feel that the state is their property, and may be bequeathed to the family's first in line. His mistake may have been to include Egypt. Mubarak has no vice president, nor is anyone regarded as a natural successor, except for his 38-year-old son, Gamal.

Such talk infuriates the president and his son.

"He has made Mubarak angry all the time, but this really did it," asserted another Egyptian active in human rights, whose refusal to let his name be used supports the idea that Ibrahim's imprisonment sent a strong message.

Egyptian officials are furious that the Ibrahim case attracted international indignation.

Nabil Osman, head of the State Information Service, said: "You just keep parroting what the human rights organizations are saying. This guy stood a regular civil trial. If it was under the emergency law, he would have no chance to appeal. And who is Saad Eddin Ibrahim, by the way? ... Your interest in him is because he is an American."

Osman has that wrong. It's because Ibrahim has spoken out courageously on issues important to many Americans, along with others around the world who take democracy and human rights seriously.

Wise as it would be for Ibrahim to keep quiet and stay out of jail, for his sake and for his family's, it's unlikely he'll be able to resist his natural impulses much longer.

"I can't censor myself forever," he acknowledges. "I must speak my mind."

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