Egypt: Last Testimony of a Democracy Activist?

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The trial and conviction of Saad Eddin Ibrahim has shocked human rights campaigners throughout the Middle East. For more than a quarter century, the sociologist from the American University in Cairo has been one of the region's leading democracy advocates. A founder of human rights organizations, he also started the Ibn Khaldun research center, an institute that pioneered studies on Egyptian political and social issues. So highly regarded was his work that even the office of President Hosni Mubarak called on him for advice on grappling with the country's ills.

But last June, in what some considered to be part of a growing government crackdown on independent critics, Ibrahim was suddenly arrested and detained without charge for 42 days. Although eventually released on bail, the authorities accused him of illegally receiving and misusing foreign funds, planning to bribe government officials and tarnishing Egypt's image abroad. Many of his supporters believe Ibrahim was charged for crossing unspoken "red lines" in his democracy advocacy. In a surprise early ruling, Cairo's Supreme State Security Court on Monday convicted the 62-year-old sociologist and sentenced him to seven years in prison. As the six-month-old trial of Ibrahim and 27 co-defendants came to a close, he spoke to TIME about the ordeal and the prospects for greater freedom in Egypt.

TIME: What accounts for the timing of the case?

Ibrahim: There are three guesses. To derail the Ibn Khaldun center from monitoring the Fall 2000 parliamentary elections. On the basis of our 1995 election monitoring report, many failed candidates went to court and won their case. They were determined to prevent this being repeated in the 2000 elections. Others have said that Ibn Khaldun has been outspoken on issues of politics in general and on the issue of the Copts (Egypt's Christian minority) in particular. Some attributed the case to other issues, like (political) succession in the Arab World.

TIME: Yet, in addition to your advocacy work, haven't you served as an advisor to President Mubarak?

Ibrahim: I was occasionally asked to submit policy papers, even when Mubarak was vice-president. I was asked by some of his aides to write speeches. I contributed on the topics of development, peace, civil society and youth. I did meet with him several times, when he was a vice-president and then as president. Some meetings were one-on-one, some as part of a group. He was always cordial, always warm, and I have a lot of regard for him. He has done a lot of good things for Egypt. He cooled down the political scene when he first came to power. It was overheated because of the controversial policies of President Sadat. He managed to re-build the infrastructure of Egypt. He has managed to reform the economy. He has managed to restore Egypt's relations with the Arab world. For the first time in 50 years, we are on good terms with everybody.

TIME: What effect has the case had on your work?

Ibrahim: The Ibn Khaldun center is closed, researchers are jobless, and the publications I used to issue have stopped. We had been working on projects on education, women, rehabilitation of Egyptian Islamic militants, governance in the Arab world, family planning and political parties. There was also a threat on my life, which I thought initially was from the Islamists. There were graphic telephone threats three or four times a day. This continued up to the day of my arrest, to the point that we had to have guards. These are American University guards supplied by the president of the University when they learned what was happening.

TIME: Has the American University supported you?

Ibrahim: The University showed solidarity with me and my family. They have given me access to all their resources in this case. During the first week of classes last Fall, the university administration asked me to give a public lecture to tell my students and the faculty how I spent my summer. The overflowing crowds were passionate and supportive. What is disturbing is what this case means to many young people, who believed in what I am doing and in whom I had installed a hope for the human rights movement.

TIME: Many believe your case was brought because you crossed "red lines." Do you agree?

Ibrahim: The opposition parties may say some of the same things. But they are suspected of having a partisan agenda. With me, it is the credibility with which I advance a case as a social scientist. I always document what I do. That is the assessment of my lawyers, and that is part of my defense. They believe that I was singled out for my persistence. But because there is no transparency, I do not know exactly what went on in their minds when they ordered my arrest, detention and trial.

TIME: Are there "red lines"? Did you cross them?

Ibrahim: My wife accuses me of being color blind. I don't see red. My only limitation is my conscience and my integrity as a social scientist. These are the only "red lines," if any. I am repeatedly told now by lawyers and friends that I did cross the "red lines."

TIME: What is the point of crossing the "red lines" if it results in your work being destroyed?

Ibrahim: You cannot negotiate with reality. You keep trying. You run against brick walls. That is being an activist. You keep trying until you are stopped or drop dead. You have to use your judgment. Of course, I do not want to be in prison, nor do I want my center to be closed. However, there is only a thin line, and you can only determine whether you have crossed the "red line" or not by dialogue with the officials. The president asked (me) for memos on political reform only six or seven months before I was charged and put in prison. Was I supposed to conclude that I was doing something upsetting?

TIME: Is the case a serious blow to the development of a civil society in Egypt?

Ibrahim: It is not going to be the death of the Egyptian civil society. It is an ongoing battle. There are wings in the establishment. There are the believers in total power. There is another wing that is progressive, in touch with what's happening in the world. Therefore, there is also conflict within the state, within the government, within the establishment. So it is not simply "the state versus civil society." It is really a more complex interaction. We have friends in the state, we have foes. Unfortunately, at this time it is people who are against civil society who are gaining the upper hand. This is a serious case. It is ominous. But it is not fatal. It will set back civil society, but it will not destroy civil society. Democracy is sweeping the world. History is on our side.