Egyptian academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim participates in a plenary session of the Agenda for the New Millennium summit in 2009. (Photo: Joy Mathew / Agenda for the New Millennium)
A largely unheralded hero of the Egyptian revolution is a mild-mannered academic who endured imprisonment and then exile for daring to criticize the Mubarak family’s increasingly dynastic ambitions.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim has spoken out forcefully on human rights and democracy for decades, and he is finally being vindicated. But his message that the United States needs to support democracy in the Arab world and put aside its paranoia about Muslim fundamentalist movements may be unpalatable to Washington’s elites.
As an academic at the American University of Cairo, Ibrahim pioneered the study of Muslim dissidents and radicals, receiving permission to interview them in the dreaded Tura prison in the early 1980s, in the wake of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by a joint council of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Grouping.
By a great irony of history, Ibrahim was destined to join his former interview subjects in prison himself. Having become a democracy activist in the 1990s, Ibrahim helped make films instructing peasants how to vote. In Egypt’s class-ridden, hierarchical society, the elite around President Hosni Mubarak viewed these activities as seditious.
But Ibrahim’s most serious infraction was to indirectly slam the increasingly obvious moves by Mubarak and his wife Suzanne to install their son, Gamal, as the future president-for-life. In an interview on satellite television, Ibrahim was asked about the tendency toward dynastic rule in the Arab world, with longtime Syrian dictator Hafez Assad ensuring he would be succeeded by his son Bashar. Ibrahim joked that the Arabs had invented a new, heretofore unknown form of government. It joined the republic (in Arabic, jumhuriya) with the monarchy (mamlakiya), creating the ... jumlukiya! We might translate the term as “monarpublicanism.”
The Mubaraks, who knew Ibrahim socially, were livid at this denigration of Gamal’s ambitions. Egypt is a nation of stand-up comedians, and the first family knew that nothing could more effectively puncture their carefully cultivated dynastic image than a humorous term such as jumlukiya. Indeed, Arab wags took the joke further. The premodern Arab world had often been ruled by Mamlukes, or a military caste. People called the Bashar Assads and the Gamal Mubaraks “Jumlukes.”
Suddenly, Saad Eddin Ibrahim was subjected to trumped-up charges that his foundation had taken European Union money for election monitoring without properly reporting the foreign funds. He was tried and sentenced to prison in 2000, languishing there until 2003, with bad effects on his health. His appeals were consistently upheld by the courts, and Mubarak faced international pressure, including from President George W. Bush, to release the hapless sociologist. He was thus released and had to go into exile in the United States.
Ibrahim was often cited by the neoconservatives who backed the Iraq War, but he did not return their esteem. He denounced them for cynically using the Sept. 11 attacks “to advance hegemonic designs” and complained that the Iraq debacle had turned the world against the U.S., causing the original sympathy generated by the attacks to evaporate.
Ibrahim saw a brief moment of redemption in Bush administration democratization policies in 2005-06, with U.S. backing for the Cedar Revolution against Syrian dominance in Lebanon. But with the victory of Hamas in the January 2006 elections for the Palestine Authority, he lamented, the Bush team made an about-face and fomented a “cold war” against “Muslim democrats.” The unseating of Hamas in the West Bank by a U.S.-backed PLO coup, and then the Israeli war on Hezbollah in Lebanon, he said, gave new heart to Arab autocrats. When the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood unexpectedly did well in the 2006 Egyptian parliamentary elections, he implied, Washington pressure on Mubarak to democratize vanished. Ibrahim warned that the future of the Arab world was democratic, and that the opinion polling done by his Ibn Khaldoun Institute demonstrated that the democracy would have a strong Islamic coloration. He pointed out that none of the Arab heads of state were among the top 10 people the Arab public said it admired, whereas Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and the Muslim Brotherhood’s then leader did make it onto that list. He would tell the Obama administration too that support for democracy means making its peace with the likely influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In recent years, Ibrahim became critical of what might be called the “neorealism” of the Obama administration. In a reaction against Bush’s rampages in the region, which it sometimes attempted to justify with reference to “democratization,” Obama’s team had chosen instead to work with the existing leaders in the region. He lamented the “free pass” he said Obama had given Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, despite human rights violations, torture and sectarian violence. He said, “The most disheartening part in all of this is that Washington under President Obama is conducting old-style foreign policy with Arab tyrants from Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to Syria’s Bashar Assad,” contrasting the sordid reality with the bright promises in Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is being vindicated by history. The young crowds in the streets are protesting about the same policies he has spent his life deploring. The Obama administration has fumbled badly in its statements on Egypt’s unrest, from Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the Mubarak regime is “stable” to Joe Biden’s ill-advised insistence that Mubarak is not a dictator. It would do well to take some advice from the grand old man of Egypt’s democracy movement. One thing is increasingly clear: Egypt will be spared the ignominy of monarpublicanism.