A belated response to injustice

August 19, 2002

WHILE EGYPTIAN human-rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has languished in his cell in a Cairo-area prison, the White House has been mum on his incarceration.

Until last week. Suddenly, the Bush administration let it be known that the United States couldn't possibly support Egypt's request for an additional $130 million in U.S. aid. The reason? Mr. Ibrahim, who has been imprisoned since July 29. An Egyptian court sentenced the activist professor to seven years in prison after a trial that human-rights workers called a sham.

The administration's pronouncement may not help Mr. Ibrahim, despite the nearly $2 billion in U.S. aid Egypt receives each year.

But at least the Bush administration spoke out, albeit belatedly. For too long, American presidents have looked the other way when key allies in the Middle East have trampled on the rights, freedoms and democratic ideals this country embraces. America's dilemma has been that the allies it counts on to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to support a move against Iraq's Saddam Hussein are neither democratic nor inclined toward democratic ideals.

In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a popular shift toward Islamic fundamentalism has spelled trouble for Arab leaders in power and U.S. goals in the region. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 exacerbated tension between the United States and the Arab world as Arab leaders found it hard to support their American ally in the face of anti-Americanism at home.

The case against Mr. Ibrahim is symptomatic of what ails many Arab societies today. A report commissioned by the U.N. Human Development Program and released earlier this year faulted the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East for the condition of their dispirited and angry populations. Dissent and opposition are not tolerated.

Mr. Ibrahim, who holds both Egyptian and American citizenship, is a sociology professor by profession, a democracy advocate by avocation. He has monitored elections, promoted women's rights and encouraged the teaching of tolerance in schools. His Ibn Khaldoun Center exposed discrimination against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority.

His arrest came in June 2000. The charge: embezzlement and accepting $250,000 in foreign grants without the government's permission.

An audit by the grantor, the European Union, found nothing amiss. Mr. Ibrahim was convicted nonetheless.

The 63-year-old professor believes his real crime was questioning the practice of Arab dictators bequeathing leadership of their states to their sons. There has been speculation that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is grooming his son for such a move.

The Bush directive last week puts the administration publicly on record on the treatment of activists such as Mr. Ibrahim. The tie between allies' human-rights records and U.S. aid is overdue. The administration now has to make good on its pledge -if activists like Saad Eddin Ibrahim can ever hope to do their work without fear of repression and reprisals.

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