Saad Eddin Ibrahim article

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 Cairo.


On his first stop during a tour of the Middle East to drum up support for tough action against Saddam Hussein, the Foreign Secretary was told that Britain and the US should not ‘rewrite the rules’ against Iraq. British officials did their best to play down the Egyptian rebuff, but Straw’s mission impossible in Cairo has done more than confirm the unease felt across the Middle East about the prospect of a US-led war against Iraq.


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.


Egypt is the only real society in the Arab world’, says Professor Edward Said of Columbia University. Yet Said believes that Mubarak’s government is just as ‘corrupt and nepotistic’ as other regimes in the Middle East, and he condemns its shameful record of suppressing dissent – a practice spotlighted by the savage sentence recently handed down to the country’s leading campaigner for human rights.


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 Egypt’s interests and embezzlement.


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 Egypt as a mark of his disapproval, the Cairo Times reported that the American action had united the country behind Mubarak. One of his advisors declared that the Egyptians were a proud people who ‘would starve before giving in to the dictates of the donor’.


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. Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel but Mubarak’s critics say that many ordinary Egyptians, if not actually starving, are doing pretty badly.


‘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. Egypt’s human rights record is a familiar story of repression, detention without trial and torture; Amnesty International has recognised 47 prisoners of conscience while thousands of suspected supporters of banned Islamist groups are held without charge.


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 Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries is responsible for the shocking statistic, noted in a recent UN report, that as few as 300 foreign books are translated and published in Arabic each year.


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 Egypt until the beginning of the 19th century. According to this cynical formulation, Ibrahim and Mubarak are marionettes in a larger plot orchestrated by the American government for some darker purpose of its own.


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 Syria’s military coup in 1949 was seen as a model for the Free Officers who deposed the Egyptian monarchy three years later, the appointment of Bashar al-Assad to succeed his father Hafez as President of Syria two years ago has been widely interpreted as an unwelcome portent.


Lurking in the background of this increasingly unstable situation are the Islamists. Their influence declined dramatically after the Luxor massacre in 1997, when they came close to destroying Egypt’s tourist trade and alienated most of the population. But they are still a force to be reckoned with and their role would become more significant if Mubarak were to be assassinated or die without nominating a successor. And this is where one of the most intriguing theories about Ibrahim’s disgrace comes in.


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 Egypt’s political and intellectual classes are divided, and how uncertain they are of the future. But they have missed a rare opportunity to spotlight Mubarak’s regime, whose status as an American client state has muted criticism of its dismal human rights record.


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.

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