Antinomies of the Saad Eddin Ibrahim Case

by Mona El-Ghobashy | published August 15, 2002

In the latest twist in the bizarre saga of the Saad Eddin Ibrahim case, on July 29 an Egyptian state security court sentenced the American University in Cairo (AUC) sociology professor to seven years in prison, and possibly hard labor, for the second time. Ibrahim, a dual Egyptian-American citizen well-regarded in the West as a pro-democracy advocate, is charged with receiving foreign funds without government permission, tarnishing Egypt's image abroad and embezzling grant money from the European Commission. International human rights organizations have condemned the verdict. The European Commission has vocally denied the embezzlement charge, and reminded the Egyptian government that, if the accusation is true, then the EC should try Ibrahim, not Egypt.

In the face of international disapproval, it seems clear that President Hosni Mubarak's regime is using the Ibrahim case to send a message to both domestic and international audiences. To Ibrahim's supporters abroad, the regime appeared to say that Ibrahim's prominence and US citizenship cannot protect him from arbitrary prosecution. To domestic human rights activists and reformers, the government singled out an unusually well-connected advocate to reinforce the message that the Egyptian government will tolerate citizen participation in politics—not to speak of dissent—only within proscribed limits.

While the 63 year-old sociologist languishes in jail, the distinctly quieter domestic reaction to Ibrahim's plight stands out. Especially after the June 2002 passage of a new NGO law—by all accounts more draconian than its two predecessors—why have Egyptian intellectuals and activists not vigorously defended Ibrahim, who is seen in the West as one of their leading lights?

In Search of a Cause

Egyptian observers were surprised, but not shocked, when Saad Eddin Ibrahim was arrested at his home on June 30, 2000 and held for 45 days in prison. The 1990s was a decade of steadily increasing regime repression on every front. The 1995 legislative elections featured widespread rigging in favor of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and some of the worst violence in the nation's electoral history. In the same year, the regime began to refer members of the reformist, non-violent Muslim Brothers to military tribunals. Only a day after Ibrahim's conviction, 16 leading Muslim Brothers were sentenced by a military tribunal to prison terms of 3-5 years. Torture was widespread in police stations, and the country's many political prisons swelled with detainees from both the Brothers and the radical Islamist Gamaa Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad. The government kept a tight grip on political party formation and rarely licensed new publications. Continuous emergency rule since October 6, 1981 criminalizes any gathering of more than five people. Even the relatively independent professional syndicates took a hit when in 1993 the government rammed through Parliament a law intervening in their internal elections and in 1996 when the government placed the Bar Association under sequestration. After a protracted legal battle, the latter order was lifted in 1999 and elections held in February 2001.

But Ibrahim's high-profile trial and conviction by a state security court in May 2001, and second conviction on July 29, 2002, raise the obvious question of why an avuncular academic with close ties to the regime is receiving such treatment. Most accounts have pointed to Ibrahim's satirical article in Arabic, which coined the term "republico-monarchy" (gumlukiyya) to describe Syria, Iraq and—bitingly—Egypt, where Mubarak is widely rumored to be grooming his son Gamal as his successor. Mubarak was said to be personally angered by Ibrahim's crossing of this "red line." Other rumors abound about Ibrahim's increasingly tense relations with Egypt's first family, and their growing displeasure with his behavior. Another oft-mentioned story is Ibrahim's plan to set up a commission to monitor the fall 2000 elections, as he did in 1995. At the trial, defense lawyers were keen to point out that the Court of Cassation, the country's highest appellate authority, indirectly endorsed many of the report's findings by ruling that over half of the representatives elected in 1995 gained their seats through rigged contests.

The arrest may also reveal heightened tension in US-Egyptian relations—the client state may be trying to send a message to its patron by humiliating an American citizen. The regime has done similar things in the past. Gamal Abd al-Nasser smeared the journalist Mustafa Amin as an American agent in order to imprison him. Anwar Sadat desperately tried to shock the US into taking him seriously again by imprisoning 1,536 leading intellectuals and dissidents (including the Coptic patriarch Shenouda) a month before he was assassinated on October 6, 1981. Ibrahim's second conviction comes nine days after the signing of the US-brokered Machakos framework agreement between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. Egypt was not invited to attend the five weeks of marathon talks preceding the agreement, though a united Sudan has been a consistent theme of Egyptian foreign policy due to Egypt's pressing interest in retaining access to Nile water. By reconvicting Ibrahim, the regime may have been returning a diplomatic slap in the face. It's also possible that the regime was broadcasting its discomfort with the Bush administration's increasingly pro-Israel stance and imminent plans to invade Iraq.

At Home and Abroad

Despite the concern of international human rights groups, foreign governments and press about the Ibrahim case, the domestic Egyptian response has been noticeably muted. If the right-wing Weekly Standard sees Ibrahim as "Egypt's Sakharov," Egyptian intellectuals view their jailed colleague, and his carefully cultivated self-image as the Arab world's leading democracy advocate and human rights defender, with a decidedly jaded eye. They would scoff at Thomas Friedman's assertion that "If there is no room in Egypt for Saad Ibrahims, then we will only get more Mohamed Attas." Quite apart from the vicious smear campaign against Ibrahim in the semi-official and government-oriented press, thoughtful, respected intellectuals aired their deep differences with Ibrahim well before he became the target of the state's unsolicited prosecutorial attention.

Perhaps most alienating for Egyptian intellectuals are Ibrahim's complicated but unquestionably close ties to the regime, a relationship his defense team highlighted in both trial and retrial, calling a parade of character witnesses from Egyptian officialdom, including the director of a government-affiliated research center and an MP from the ruling NDP. Board members of Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies were a virtual who's who of Egyptian society, including current Minister of Youth Alieddine Hilal. At both trials, much was made of a 1994 conference on the future of the Mubarak regime and Egypt's Islamist movement held at the National Defense University in Washington, which Ibrahim and other Egyptians attended. To bolster Ibrahim's nationalist credentials, character witnesses for the defense reported that Amr Moussa, then foreign minister, had instructed the attendees to thank their hosts and return to Cairo immediately if anyone suggested that US aid dollars could be used a bargaining chip in future US-Egyptian dealings.

For three years, by order of Minister of Information Safwat al-Sherif, Ibrahim hosted a half-hour show on state-controlled TV on Friday evenings (peak viewer time) entitled "Away from the Limelight," in which he lectured viewers about the evils of terrorism and the importance of supporting "civil society." He was also close to Mubarak personally, serving as thesis supervisor for First Lady Suzanne Mubarak at AUC and professor of Gamal, and drafting numerous policy papers and official speeches featuring the term "civil society," which the regime eventually adopted. Ibrahim was also a fixture in the groups of academics meeting periodically with Mubarak and sent abroad to represent the semi-official Egyptian view.

More broadly, Ibrahim has become identified with the so-called Cairo peace camp, which has advocated a move toward normal relations and cultural exchanges with Israel. This stance is highly controversial among nationalist-leftist intellectuals and others who are sharply critical of the 1979 Camp David accord and oppose normalization with Israel until such time as the outstanding issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict are resolved. Economist Nader Fergany, lead author of the recently issued UN Arab Human Development Report, maintained in the pages of the London-based al-Hayat that Ibrahim represents American interests in the region, as evidenced by his support for normalization and his public attention to the "Coptic question." Fergany and his fellow critics perceive Ibrahim's focus on discrimination against Egypt's minority Coptic Christians as springing less out of genuine scholarly concern than an ear for what plays well in the West. In the view of these critics, some of whom are Copts, a focus on Copts as a minority could lead to the rise of separatist politics in Egypt, of which only Israel is the beneficiary.

In short, while they denounce Ibrahim's trial in a state security court, many independent intellectuals feel that the Ibrahim case is not a civil rights case to rally around. This feeling is ironically reinforced by the international outrage over his second conviction. As one leftist activist said off the record, "I just feel that Ibrahim hasn't sacrificed anything before his recent ordeal. He was never imprisoned, never persecuted by the government, indeed he was a son of the regime. I'm totally against throwing him in jail, but it seems to me he's now paying the price of his choices." But while they don't necessarily identify Ibrahim as one of their own, NGO activists do perceive that one of the regime's primary goals in targeting Ibrahim was to intimidate them.

State Knows Best

In record time, the government rushed through Parliament on June 3 a new bill regulating NGOs to replace the law declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court in June 2000. The new bill gives the government the power to dissolve an NGO without court order (Article 42), prohibits NGOs from working in politics (Article 11), requires government approval of funding from foreign agencies before NGOs can access it (Article 17) and requires government approval of candidates running in NGO board elections. The bill was ratified by Mubarak on June 5.

Opposition, independent and even some government MPs opposed Article 42 and called for reinstating the stipulation in an earlier law requiring a court order to close down an NGO. Deputies also put up a fight about Article 11, arguing that it is naive to exclude NGOs from working in politics on the pretext that parties are the proper venue for political activity. In the words of a Muslim Brother MP, "If an NGO works to raise literacy, this is politics. If an NGO works in garbage collection, this is also politics. Anything that contributes to the public interest in political." Yet when it came to Article 17, there was near unanimity that the administration had the right to approve foreign funding, most vocally from some independent and opposition deputies.

In the parliamentary debate on June 3, several MPs parroted the government's claim that the Saad Eddin Ibrahim case is a clear-cut example of the misuse of foreign funds for suspect purposes. As nominally independent deputy Mortada Mansour said, "We have a clear example of a professor who received foreign funding and it turned out he was backed by America. I'm not against social research but I call on all social research to be made in Egypt." Former state security officer and government MP Gamal Abu Zekri said, "Foreign funding is very dangerous. We must be careful because it's a back door for Zionist infiltration and incitement to sectarian strife." This last claim was expressed in somewhat more sophisticated fashion by the late leftist writer Sanaa al-Masri in her book, "Funding and Normalization," which argues that foreign funding of NGOs invariably has strings attached—namely promoting normalization with Israel. NGOs also fight the common perception that those who accept grants from abroad are personally corrupt. As Liberal Party MP Ragab Hemeida said, "Many NGO members wrote reports to outside agencies, were made rich and began driving around in [their] Mercedes."

The bill's swift railroading through Parliament offers solid evidence of the government's success in stigmatizing foreign funding, often the major means of support for NGOs who monitor the state's human rights practices and issue periodic, detailed reports on torture, arbitrary detention and other abuses. Largely as a result, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) has significantly curtailed its activities and drastically scaled back its acceptance of grants from foreign governments. The Group for Democratic Development had already closed up shop two years ago, citing the inhospitable environment for human rights advocacy. Had it not been for the Ibrahim case, parliamentary opposition to the NGO law would likely have been stronger. But lost in the parliamentary clamor over foreign funding was the fact—pointed out by Ibrahim in a statement to the court—that the Egyptian government is the recipient of the lion's share of foreign funding in Egypt.

Throughout Ibrahim's trial and retrial, the rhetoric of state security prosecutors and prosecution witnesses revealed a dominant state jealous of its prerogatives and unwilling to conceptualize politics as anything other than a zero-sum game. Prosecutors insisted on the right to prosecute despite the EC's signed affidavits absolving Ibrahim of the embezzlement charge, the right of the state to monitor and intrude upon the activities of NGOs, the right of the state to be free of "defamation" and the right of the state alone to decide what is best for society, with minimal input from representatives of society itself. This conception of an omniscient, suspicious, omnipresent state is a sobering legacy of the July 1952 revolution, the fiftieth anniversary of which has preoccupied the public reflections of Egyptians this summer.

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