Egypt persists against activist

Persecution: Saad Eddin Ibrahim finds himself in court again, charged with defaming his nation.

May 05, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the most prominent face and voice of human rights activism in Egypt, is back in the dock of a Cairo courtroom. A cage, to be more precise, as the Egyptians never gave up on that Napoleonic-era tradition.

The 63-year-old professor, who holds U. S. citizenship, steps gingerly, with the help of a cane, into the defendants' cage, and sits alongside six co-defendants from his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. The center, which received grants from abroad, found, among other things, that Egypt's elections were rigged and that the minority Coptic Christian population was discriminated against in Egypt.

Ibrahim is charged with defaming Egypt for reporting his findings abroad. He also is charged with violating an emergency regulation against receiving funds from abroad without government permission, and of misusing the money.

Human rights activists and other supporters say the charges are trumped up to punish Ibrahim for making life uncomfortable for the authorities, especially for the security establishment and for President Hosni Mubarak, who might as well be referred to as president for life.

The government denies it is behind the charges. "The government doesn't have anything to do with Saad Eddin Ibrahim's case. We have an extremely independent judicial system," said Hisham al-Nakib.

What nonsense. It's true that the judiciary is unusually independent in Egypt. By the standard of most dictatorships in the Middle East, it is extraordinarily independent. But the assertion that the government has nothing to do with the prosecution of Ibrahim is preposterous. The prosecution is the government.

Ibrahim, who teaches sociology at the American University of Cairo, probably has the highest profile of any human rights activist in Egypt - not that there are that many of them. He has been an outspoken critic of the government for years. Any visitor to Egypt who was interested in the politics of the place and in human rights would necessarily see the professor. He is thoughtful, imaginative and determined to make Egypt a better place for it citizens. Until his arrest, he had some access to the highest personalities in government, including Mubarak.

All this came to a crashing halt in June 2000 when he and more than a dozen others connected with the Ibn Khaldun Center were arrested. One of the unwritten rules of public expression in Egypt is that you don't criticize the president directly and you don't criticize Islam.

Practically the same day of his arrest, an article written by Ibrahim appeared in the London-based Arabic-language magazine Al Megalah, discussing the tendency of Middle Eastern dictators to pass on power to their sons, as had just happened in Syria with Bashar Assad's taking over from his late father, Hafez.

In an interview in his office at the AUC in February, Ibrahim explained: In the Arab world, if a ruler remains in power for more than 10 years (Mubarak has been in power for 20 years), he develops a sense of possession. It is his private property, and like any other private property it is to be inherited.

In Egypt, many feel that Mubarak intends to turn over power to his son, Gamal, who by all accounts is a bright man. But both deny that's the plan.

The succession article, Ibrahim felt, was the straw that broke the camel's back. "I had dared to raise the question of succession. ... That article appeared on the newsstands June 29 and one day after, I was arrested." His trial began February 2001. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. In February this year, a higher court overturned the conviction on a technicality and ordered a retrial. Ibrahim was released from prison.

Ibrahim, his family and supporters around the world hoped the government would let the case die. That seemed like the wise course because the prosecution of him had stirred up a hue and cry in Western capitals.

A sensible authority, in a country trying to represent itself as a friend of the West and a progressive leader of the Arab world, would have let the matter die there, left Ibrahim alone and somewhat chastened.

Not the Egyptian authorities. Ibrahim is back in the dock. His retrial began last week in the South Cairo Court of First Instance - reputedly one of the toughest in Egypt.

Why does Egypt persist?

I asked Ibrahim this by telephone Friday. There are two possibilities, he thinks.

One is that the authorities "who fabricated the case in the first place felt defeated and therefore they want a retrial to deprive me from feeling sweet victory - and to keep the message out that there is no tolerance for democracy advocated by activists." The second possibility, he thinks, is that the authorities wanted to close the file tidily.

Is he optimistic?

"I am always optimistic," he said. "As an activist, I have to be optimistic to believe in the possibility of change."

But he also is a realist and worried about his family - his American wife, Barbara, and their two children.

"If I am convicted again, I hope the penalty won't be too harsh, for my family."

What seems not to have occurred to the Egyptian authorities is that a larger family has been damaged by this, too. The Egyptian family.

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