Far from the public eye a drama is playing out that will have the utmost consequences for the Bush administration’s goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. The region’s most prominent dissident, Egyptian sociologist Saad Edin Ibrahim, suddenly finds himself in a kind of perambulatory exile, hopping from conference to conference — in nine countries in the last three months. The one place he dare not go is home to Egypt because well-placed officials have warned him not to put himself within President Hosni Mubarak’s grasp.
What has Mr. Ibrahim done to enrage President Mubarak? He has loudly advocated democracy in public writings, interviews with Western reporters, and, most unforgivably, in a face-to-face meeting with President George W. Bush. As a result, members of Mr. Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party filed nine formal requests with the state prosecutor’s office this summer for indictments against Mr. Ibrahim, for “damaging the state’s economic interests” and even “treason.” The state-run press has conducted a smear campaign against him.
Most recently, Egypt’s largest paper, Al Ahram, carried a front-page editorial signed by Osama Saraya, its editor-in-chief, that branded Mr. Ibrahim an “agent” of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and a “criminal.” Still more ominously, the author averred that Mr. Ibrahim had “repeated his old crime itself by giving false information to a foreign reader” to obscure “the environment of freedom and reform that Egypt lives in.”
The real point of this absurd argument was to encourage and justify a repetition of the ordeal to which the Egyptian state subjected Mr. Ibrahim seven years ago. In 2000 he became the region’s most celebrated political prisoner when he was jailed on spurious charges stemming from the efforts of his Ibn Khaldun Center to monitor Egyptian elections. Altogether he spent two years behind bars before Egypt’s highest and most politically independent judicial body, the Court of Cassation, overturned his conviction. Alas, this did not come before his health had been permanently damaged.
Torture is all too common in Egyptian prisons, but his jailers were reluctant to leave scars on Mr. Ibrahim because the U.S. government followed his case closely. (He is married to an American and holds American as well as Egyptian citizenship.) Instead they resorted to sleep deprivation. After 45 days of being roughly wakened each time he started to doze, Mr. Ibrahim suffered a stroke.
A fit, athletic man who was still jogging at the age of 60, Mr. Ibrahim, 68, now walks with a severe limp. Another term in prison could literally seal his doom. Worse, Egyptian dissidents do not put it past the intelligence services, or mukhabarat, to arrange an “accident” that would rid Mr. Mubarak of this meddlesome advocate without generating the international campaign that will ensue if he is imprisoned. They point to the recent mysterious defenestration in London of Ashraf Marwan, an alleged spy for Israel, whose death the Israeli press suggests may have been caused by Egyptian agents. Fears of such dirty tricks are not paranoid: Just prior to Mr. Ibrahim’s imprisonment in 2000 an unidentified truck ran his car into a ditch.
The campaign against Mr. Ibrahim is the latest evidence that Egypt is marching backwards on democracy and human rights. In his 2005 state of the union address, President Bush had called upon “the great and proud nation of Egypt [to] show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.” When Mr. Mubarak announced Egypt’s first ever presidential election, it seemed as if his exhortation was being heeded. To no one’s surprise, the election was not fair, but hopes for the future were kindled by Mr. Mubarak’s pledge to inaugurate an era of political reform after his re-election.
Instead, Mr. Mubarak had his main competitor, Ayman Nour, tossed in prison on trumped up charges, where he languishes in declining health. Mr. Mubarak then pushed through constitutional “reform” in the form of 35 amendments adopted as a single indivisible package, precluding meaningful deliberation. This was followed by arrests of dissident bloggers and other critics — both secular and Islamist — and then by the vicious persecution of a group of “Quranists,” Muslim reformers who want a return to original Scripture as opposed to subsequent interpretations that are often more narrow-minded. Now, the hounding of Mr. Ibrahim completes the mockery of the hopes of 2005.
The new attacks on Mr. Ibrahim began in late May this year when the wife of the emir of Qatar hosted a conference to launch the Arab Foundation for Democracy. The Qatari government endowed it with $10 million with which to support reformers in the region, and Mr. Ibrahim was named to the board. Some of Egypt’s state-controlled media portrayed the whole operation as a front for Mr. Ibrahim’s disloyal activities. Ironically, he had been condemned previously for accepting Western donations for pro-democracy work, but now it turned out that Arab donations were no better. Apparently it was the purpose of the funds, rather than their source, that made them taboo.
A week later, Mr. Ibrahim spoke at a conference on democracy held in Prague, where President Bush met with him and dissidents from other countries. The Egyptian press again went into high dudgeon — some even dubbing Mr. Ibrahim’s organization the “Son of Zion Center” — when Mr. Bush, in his highly publicized speech there, mentioned Ayman Nour as one of those “who couldn’t join us because they are being unjustly imprisoned.” The other absentees named by Mr. Bush were from Belarus, Burma, Cuba and Vietnam. The Egyptian government bristled at being placed in such company and accused Mr. Ibrahim of putting Mr. Bush up to it.
In his own Prague remarks, Mr. Ibrahim appealed to Western governments: “As freedom fighters, we ask you to stop supporting dictators in our countries. . . . in the name of stability and continuity.” Soon thereafter, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to reduce U.S. aid to Egypt by $200 million unless that country showed progress on human rights. Mr. Mubarak blamed Mr. Ibrahim.
All of this has profound consequences not only for Mr. Ibrahim and Egypt, but for Washington, too. Mr. Ibrahim is being persecuted more for the actions of the U.S. president and Congress than for what he, himself, did. Can we tolerate this? In May, the Syrian dissident, Kamal Labwani, was sentenced to years in prison for the simple act of meeting U.S. officials. But Syria is a hostile state, an unindicted coconspirator in the Axis of Evil. Egypt, in contrast, is an ally to which we give $2 billion each year.
This relationship, of course, is exactly the problem. No U.S. administration wants to butt heads with Egypt, and the Senate declined to go along with the House’s conditional cut in Egypt’s aid.
Mr. Mubarak may see Mr. Ibrahim’s alleged offenses as a matter of national honor. But is our own national honor not also at stake if someone, an American citizen no less, is persecuted for holding a conversation with the president of the U.S.? Somehow, Mr. Bush and Congress must convey a stern warning to Mr. Mubarak: Hands off Saad Edin Ibrahim.
Mr. Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is writing a book about democrats in the Middle East.