Article by Joan Smith, Chair of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, that first appeared in ‘The Times’ on 11th October 2002.
The two men smiled broadly, but their body language gave the game away. The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, may have enjoyed himself at his meeting this week with Jack Straw, but the Foreign Secretary looked like a man who would rather be elsewhere. His suit rumpled, his hands awkwardly clasped, Straw appeared to be putting on a brave face as he listened to an uncompromising anti-war message from
On his first stop during a tour of the
It highlights the fact that while Arab leaders may have little affection for Saddam, the crisis has presented them with an irresistible opportunity to grandstand before a domestic audience – and to divert attention from their own shortcomings. This is especially true of Egypt, which should be the great success story of the Middle East; in a region dominated by absolute monarchs and theocracies, it is that rarest of entities, an Arab democracy.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a 63-year-old professor of sociology, is serving a seven-year sentence after a trial at which he appeared in court in a cage. Ibrahim first got into trouble two years ago, after his academic institution accepted an EC grant, some of which was used to produce a film alleging voter intimidation in the 1995 Parliamentary elections. He was convicted with three co-defendants at the end of July of accepting foreign funds without authorisation, disseminating false information harmful to
Said regards Ibrahim as ‘a rather daring guy’ who was prepared to talk about democracy, civil society and the rights of Egypt’s ethnic and religious minorities. ‘If you live by your intellect, if you get too outspoken and independent, you are going to get hit’, he says.
Yet Said’s outspoken criticism has found few echoes among Egyptian intellectuals. ‘There has been very little defence of him in the Arab world’, he says. ‘It’s disgraceful.’ On the contrary, Ibrahim has been dismissed as too close to the Americans – he holds dual Egyptian and American citizenship – while foreign condemnation of his trial has given Mubarak another opportunity to present himself as the victim of Western bullying.
When President Bush announced in August that he was suspending new aid worth $130m to
The Muslim Brotherhood called on the President to ditch American aid, a demand that has considerable resonance in a country where many people believe that most of it goes straight into the pockets of corrupt businessmen.
‘The poor have been getting poorer over the last 15 years’, a prominent Egyptian intellectual told me. ‘The gap has widened enormously, with dire consequences on the structure of society and the economy’. This man, like all the Egyptians I talked to, was unwilling to be named for fear of the consequences.
Egyptian and foreign publications are regularly seized and censored, a circumstance that goes some way towards explaining the silence of many of its intellectuals. Fear of arrest is hardly conducive to creativity, and state censorship in
Against this background, Ibrahim’s jailing was briefly seen as the moment when the Arab world might finally have found its Nelson Mandela. But such hopes were quickly dashed by Mubarak’s clever manipulation of anti-American feeling, combined with the petty jealousies endemic in countries where advancement still depends on patronage.
‘A lot of people are jealous of him’, says Said. ‘He was spectacularly successful, a man who had his own institute, who was always in the media. We gloat in the tragedies of our friends’. The whole episode is referred to dismissively in some circles as ‘a fight among the Mamelukes’, a reference to the former slaves who ruled
Yet it is hard to resist the suspicion that Ibrahim’s fate is inextricably linked to the looming crisis in Egyptian politics, the question of who is to succeed the country’s 74-year-old President. His real offence may have been to suggest openly that Mubarak is grooming his elder son Gamal to succeed him; Ibrahim is credited with coining the ironic term ‘jumlukiya’ – a hybrid of the Arabic words jumhuriya (republic) and malikiya (monarchy) – to describe the President’s supposed ambitions.
Gamal is politely described as a leader in the Egyptian business community, a huge disadvantage in a country where all three long-serving Presidents of the Republic – Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak – have been drawn from the army. Just as
Lurking in the background of this increasingly unstable situation are the Islamists. Their influence declined dramatically after the
There is no doubt he had contact with the Islamists in the course of his academic research, and it has been suggested that he facilitated meetings between the American government and Islamic groups in Embaba, a poverty-stricken district of Cairo. ‘If Mubarak falls, the Americans would have someone to deal with’, explained a prominent Egyptian human rights activist.
This potent mixture of rumour and speculation is a demonstration of how deeply
Once again, it has been left to Edward Said, who has exchanged letters with Ibrahim in prison, to take an unequivocal stand on freedom of expression in the Arab world. ‘I think they have made an example of him’, he says grimly.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersinprison/prisoners/smitharticle/