Egyptian Activist Sees Opening for Democratic Reform

By Marc Perelman

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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The American victory in Iraq is offering a unique opportunity to promote and spread democracy in the Middle East, according to the leading Egyptian human-rights activist.

“Objectionable as the war may have been, the area has one fewer dictator. So there is a true opportunity to establish new institutions, new practices and new values, including democratic governance not only in Iraq but also in the region,” Saad Eddin Ibrahim told the Forward during a phone interview in New York, where he was meeting friends, supporters and American officials. Ibrahim, who became a cause célèbre when he was jailed three years ago for advocating democratic reforms in Egypt, added, “Democracy is necessary to peace in the Middle East.”

Ibrahim, 64, is an Egyptian-American professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. He was arrested with 27 associates in June 2000 for announcing that his think tank would monitor parliamentary elections; he was also accused of illegally receiving money from the European Union to fund voter education programs.

Still, he and most observers believe the real reason behind Ibrahim’s arrest was his public misgivings about the 1995 elections and the possible grooming of Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father, Hosni, as president of Egypt.

After spending 14 months in solitary confinement, during which he suffered several strokes, Ibrahim was acquitted of all charges on March 18 by Egypt’s highest court, following a relentless campaign by his family and friends that was endorsed by the Bush administration.

Based on his recent conversations with American officials, Ibrahim said that for the first time, he sensed a true American commitment not only to promote peace and democracy in the region, but also to put some muscle behind the effort.

“The skepticism of the Arab world is warranted because of the administration’s and America’s record in the region,” he said. “However, as an activist, I take leaders at their own words, and I try to mobilize like-minded people to keep these governments accountable and demand they deliver all their promises.”

Still, he warned that democracy would not spread unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solved because, he said, it colors most Arabs’ view of America and provides a ready-made excuse for the autocratic regimes to postpone democratic reforms.

At the same time, he insisted that Washington should stop giving a pass on democracy to its strategic friends in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

“I am telling every U.S. officials I meet this need not be the case,” he said. “Donors and creditors ought to demand from every friendly head of state to submit a timetable for reform and to make that conditional for the continuation of aid and good will by the United States.”

Ibrahim believes Washington should propose a “regional road map” toward democracy and development that would entail practical demands like lifting emergency laws and abolishing special security courts. He also advocates freedom of the press and freedom of political association in the region, and he promotes the establishment of constitutions that enshrine term limits and democratic institutions.

Pressure from Washington actually played a key role in Ibrahim’s personal liberation. After Ibrahim’s seven-year jail sentence for “disseminating false information harmful to Egypt’s interests” was affirmed last summer, the Bush administration took the unusual step of linking his acquittal to the release of additional aid to Egypt.

The sociologist, however, does not consider his liberation a token measure. He described the 35-page decision by the Cassation Court — the highest court in Egyptian — as a comprehensive indictment of the abusive powers used by the Egyptian regime, especially the executive branch and the “imperial presidency.”

“For a court to say this is very, very courageous,” Ibrahim said. “It never happened in 50 years.”

He believes the ruling is a victory for the reformist wing of the regime, which he said includes officials in the foreign affairs and economy ministries, as well as members of the business community and the justice system.

Ibrahim voiced disagreement with the concern raised by the autocratic rulers and some policymakers in the West that democracy in the Middle East will bring radical Islamists in power. “I want to dismiss the fear-arousing approach that autocratic regimes have used to ward off any pressure to democratize,” he said.

He said that Islamic parties playing the democratic game have been forced to mellow and compromise, citing the examples of the ruling Islamist party now in power in Turkey, as well as Islamist factions in parliaments in Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain.

He contended that the Muslim Brotherhood — the main Islamic group in Egypt, which has been barred and monitored by the regime for decades — was willing to participate in elections and abide by democratic rules.

Asked whether this could be a tactical move, Ibrahim said one would quickly find out by watching the group’s behavior. He added that the Turkish model, which grants the army the role of custodian of the constitution, could be adopted for some time as a guarantee — a proposal likely to raise eyebrows among democracy activists.

Ibrahim reiterated his accusations against the autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak and voiced his concerns about the grooming of his son as heir to the presidency.

“We don’t want a de facto monarchy like in Syria and North Korea,” he said. “If you want a monarchy, say so and let the people say yes or no.”

He added that he would not have any problem if Gamal Mubarak were to run in a competitive election. In fact, Ibrahim said that he “very well” might vote for him.

“But it has to be a competitive election,” he added, stressing that the current election system where only one candidate is allowed to run and collects 99% of the vote “is a joke inside Egypt and outside Egypt.”

“Egypt can, Egypt should, Egypt must be a democratic country,” he said. “If we win the democracy battle there, we will have won half of the democracy fight in the region.”

Asked whether he believed Hosni Mubarak could usher in democratic reforms, Ibrahim said he did not know. He recounted that before the 1999 presidential elections, Mubarak asked him to write a policy paper on such reforms. During the campaign, Mubarak often referred to the 25-page paper to show he was willing to promote changes. But once he was elected, he did not follow suit.

“Now the hope for change is real, and I hope he will listen,” Ibrahim said. “If he doesn’t listen, he will be swept out by history.”

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