Cairo’s crusader for freedom

Egyptian social scientist Saad Eddin Ibrahim isn’t daunted. He is determined to ensure democracy gains a foothold in his country.

Ibrahim 311 (photo credit: AJC)
Ibrahim 311
(photo credit: AJC)
WASHINGTON – To hear Saad Eddin Ibrahim tell it, he’s famous in Egypt because he’s been in prison.
“If you are an ex-convict, everybody recognizes you, because when you’re a convict your picture is in the paper all the time,” he explained to a packed auditorium during the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Washington last month. “So they cheered and welcomed me.”
The “they” was the throngs of Egyptian protesters greeting him upon his return to Egypt after the revolution swept president Hosni Mubarak from power. But it was why he had been sent to jail that moved them, not merely his renown.
Ibrahim has spent years in an Egyptian prison for defying the Mubarak regime by calling for freedom and democracy. He has faced numerous suits and trials in absentia even after leaving the country, and until this January, his was one of the few Egyptian voices willing to challenge the authoritarian government.
But Ibrahim’s willingness to confront powerful forces has not ended with his crusade for democracy.
He has also challenged Egyptian public opinion by visiting Israel and calling unequivocally for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I got criticized for it, but I didn’t mind because I believe in peace,” he told the AJC audience, to warm applause. “And I believe that if we do not conclude a genuine peace in the region, we will always have those dictators using the issue of Palestine to stay in power, and they’re not helping anybody except themselves.”
Ibrahim was also willing to level some harsh words at US President Barack Obama, who he believes didn’t side quickly enough with the protesters in Tahrir Square.
“For a whole week he was reluctant to take a public step. And the fear was, from their point of view at the White House... what would our other allies in the Middle East say if we turned our back on Mubarak so quickly?” Ibrahim said.
He then added, “It’s not so quickly – it’s 30 years.
How long do you want to support him? Thirty years and just one month or two months of supporting the Egyptian people!”
Ibrahim described himself as “really angry” at the US posture, so he kept pushing the White House to go further.
“I kept working at it until President Obama finally [said to Mubarak]: ‘Now... Step down now,’” Ibrahim recounted.
Currently the 70-year-old law social scientist thinks the US should do more to support the demonstrators in Syria, and that the Egyptians have their own work cut out for them when it comes to building a democratic system. He spoke to The Jerusalem Post shortly before catching a plane to Cairo. In the coming months he plans to make a repeat visit to Israel as well.
What’s your assessment of how the process to bring democracy to Egypt is going?
It is proceeding on track, but with occasional bumps in the road. One of these bumps is the group called Salafists. They are like the Jewish fanatics in Israel, who can derail the process.
They’re the group to worry about. They pose as less political than the Muslim Brothers, [but] when the chips are down they will probably overtake the Muslim Brothers. The Salafist camp will be sizable, with the ability to muster anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the popular vote in any free and transparent election and which will make them the biggest bloc. The others, even though they are at 60%, are fairly liberal but are divided among themselves.
That’s part of what I’m doing in Egypt, to see how we can create a counterpart to the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of whom, while claiming to be different, adhere to a religious frame of reference.
What do you think these religious groups would do with that much political power?
I think they will be very careful in the beginning until they manage to alter the “mind-forming” ministers. Being the dominant force or the biggest bloc, they probably can pick and choose cabinet portfolios... They will probably opt to take the ministry of education, the ministry of religious endowment and the ministry of social development. They also may begin to impose their own agenda and their own way of life, not only on the people working in the ministry, but on their activities.
And, I believe in this way, these religious groups will seem as no imminent threat in the short term, but in the medium and long run, they could be to the secular nature of the state and government.
What kind of effect do you see this religious involvement as having on Egypt’s treatment of Israel?
They have two answers. One, that they will respect all the previous international agreements signed by Egypt, regardless of who signed it. When they’re pushed into a corner about how they’re going to deal with Israel, they say they will put the question to a referendum, and whatever the people demand of them, according to the referendum, they will respect. Now, if we take elections and referendums at face value, well, that’s democratic. If you have suspicions, like many people do, of the other, undeclared agenda of these groups, you have to be very vigilant.
Are you in the suspicious camp?
I am, but being on the record for demanding that they have a legitimate chance to participate, I cannot exclude them. I have to fight – I cannot just wish them [away].
Regardless of the role the Islamic parties play, what does the greater Egyptian society want to see done about Israel?
I think, frankly, that nobody has the stomach to go back to a war course with Israel. I think that Egyptians now have gotten used to a state of peace.
Even though they may have 1,001 misgivings about Israel, they will not push that all the way to returning to a war.
No. 2, Israel has a big responsibility to help the democratic camp, by acting more equitably vis-àvis the Palestinians. If they turn around and keep abusing and building settlements and refusing to come to the negotiating table, they will not make the democrats’ life easy.
What should the United States do to help democracy take hold in Egypt?
One, to send or to demand international monitoring of elections. Two, to demand that the NGO law and political parties law should be amended to make the creation of NGOs and political parties by notification, period. Not numbers, not signatures...
Three, the US should provide both technical and material support to NGOs and democracy advocates in Egypt and the Arab world.
Do you think the US should condition its aid on Egyptian steps toward democracy?
Yes, [conditioned] on the government observing all of that.
What do you think the US should do regarding Syria?
It should be more forceful in exerting pressure on the Syrian regime and its members.
Why have the Americans not gone as far on Syria as they did with Egypt?
They have less leverage vis-à-vis Syria. However, they can support the Syrian and Libyan rebels.
They can support the Yemeni democracy efforts. [It should] be very clear that they’re for change and the democrats in the region. Period.
Whoever gets elected, even if they are initially anti-American, sooner or later they will have to deal with the Americans as the sole superpower in the world, and they will want recognition.
What do you think of Egypt’s recent moves toward normalizing relations with Iran?
The regime wants to establish its independence, that it is a free and independent institution, that it will deal with all countries and it’s not going to be playing only to the American tune. They have their own interests, and of course they know the public doesn’t have that kind of negative feeling toward Iran that the American public or the Israeli public has.
Does the move toward normalization with Iran worry you?
Are you optimistic about the chances of democracy coming to Egypt?  Despite the bumps in the road, do you think democracy will take hold?
I am. And if it doesn’t, we have nobody to blame except ourselves.