The Egyptian regime has once again succeeded in stifling freedom of speech, this time not in Egypt, but in the US. Earlier this month, an Egyptian court convicted a prominent Egyptian-American activist for his outspoken criticism of the regime’s poor human rights record in American public fora. The court accused Saad Eddin Ibrahim, of “tarnishing Egypt’s image” abroad. The conviction referred primarily to writings he published in the foreign press; most notably among them an August 2007 op-ed in the Washington Post in which he criticized Egypt’s human rights record and questioned the reasons behind US aid to Egypt.
The court ruling reflects Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s anger over Ibrahim’s calls for greater political freedom in Egypt and for the US to make aid to Egypt contingent upon progress towards democratization there. Because of Ibrahim’s access to the White House and to US opinion-shapers, the Egyptian government views him as a threat that challenges its relationship with the US.
Since the court ruling punishes Ibrahim for participating in an American debate on how US foreign aid is used by its recipients, it not only attempts to silence advocates of reform in Egypt; it is an attempt to stifle debate in America on an issue that is rightly of American concern. How the US government spends taxpayers’ money abroad is a critical matter that must be addressed in an open public debate free of the interference of Mubarak and of other long-standing dictators.
The US has a moral obligation to scrutinize how American foreign aid is used and should not tolerate efforts by foreign governments to silence that debate. We also have a moral obligation to defend those who participate in such debates. If we allow the latest court ruling against Ibrahim’s outspokenness to go unchecked, it will hinder American debates on such issues in the future, as Egyptian critics may be less likely to participate for fear of retribution at home.
In a public statement, the State Department expressed dismay at the court ruling, affirming its commitment to the principle of freedom of speech everywhere. But no substantive moves have been made to pressure Egypt to rescind the ruling.
In his speech before the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this year, President Bush expressed his hope that Egypt would lead the Arab world in terms of political reform. To a round of applause, he called on “all nations to release their prisoners of conscience, open up their political debate, and trust their people to chart their future.” It is now time for President Bush to make good on his commitment to free speech with more than just words.
The US can lend backbone to its calls for political reform by using its economic aid as financial leverage. Such an approach has a successful precedent. In 2002 when Ibrahim was facing trial on similar charges, the Bush administration froze aid to the Egyptian government in protest over his treatment. As a result, the regime backed down and when the case made it to the more independent Court of Cassation all charges were dropped.
It is again time for the US to use its financial leverage. The White House should make it clear to the Egyptian regime that the US will not tolerate any interference in American domestic debates.