'I was a lesson: don't speak out'

March 21, 2003

Egypt's top court has freed an intellectual after three years' imprisonment under anti-terrorist laws. But Saad Ibrahim's real crime, he tells Phil Baty, was to criticise the government. 

It was close to midnight and Saad Ibrahim was working quietly in his study when 30 armed men stormed his Cairo home. "It was terrifying," he says. "It was late, I was alone, and I didn't know what was going on."

But the night got worse as the sociology professor and human-rights campaigner gradually grasped the chilling reality of what was happening.

The state had come to silence one of its most vocal critics.

Men from the local police and from Egypt's notorious state security forces turned Ibrahim's home upside down and seized his papers and his computer.

Ibrahim was dragged outside, where he found himself surrounded by "enough troops to invade a town". Bizarrely, that gave him some scant comfort. "In an almost funny way, it showed me how insecure the state is. Does it really take 200 security men and 20 armoured cars to arrest a 62-year-old intellectual?"

He was taken at gunpoint to the offices of his independent think-tank, where the security forces were holding three of his colleagues. His accountant was handcuffed and blindfolded. "She was in hysterics - screaming and sobbing," Ibrahim says. "She thought she was being kidnapped and that she would be raped. She had come to Egypt to escape oppression in Sudan, but here she was facing the worst kind of oppression in Egypt."

That night in June 2000 was the start of a three-year nightmare for Ibrahim and dozens of his colleagues. He was held for 45 days without charge in Cairo's notorious Tora reception prison - kept in a tiny cell with a light always burning and subjected to a barrage of interrogations. But things could have been worse: "I was not subjected to physical torture like my younger colleagues," he says.

Ibrahim and the others had been arrested under anti-terrorist laws, and they were eventually charged in Egypt's draconian supreme state security court. But Ibrahim was no suspected terrorist. He was charged, in September 2000, with "disseminating false information harmful to Egypt's interests" and with accepting European research funding - for a project on democracy - "without authorisation". Allegations that he embezzled European Union funds - which the European funders denied vehemently - were also thrown in, but his real crime, it seems, was publicly to criticise the state. He had stood up for Egypt's minorities and accused the state of rigging the 1995 polls in favour of the ruling "democratic" party, the NDP.

He was found guilty of the charges in May 2001 and sentenced to seven years with hard labour. Twenty-seven of his academic colleagues were found guilty of similar charges, and some received prison terms of between two and five years. There followed a tortuous series of appeals and convictions, with a frail Ibrahim forced to spend 17 of the past 32 months in prison, helplessly watching from a courtroom cage as his fate became a national obsession.

This week, the nightmare finally ended when Egypt's highest court cleared him of all charges and released him. "I have endured three years of harassment, imprisonment, interrogation and trials," he says. "I have endured a war of attrition with the state."

Ibrahim is clear about the reason for his ordeal. "My work antagonised the state. I spoke out for the rights of Egypt's minorities at a time of internal strife in Egypt. I criticised the conduct of elections in 1995, and I was arrested as I prepared to monitor the 2000 elections. I caused them embarrassment, so they charged me to discredit me and to send a message to other intellectuals not to speak out. They wanted to make me into a lesson for Egyptian intellectuals and academics - do not embarrass the state."

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a former television celebrity with a mainstream weekly current affairs show and a one-time confidant of President Hosni Mubarak, always made an unlikely prisoner of conscience. He graduated from Cairo University in 1960 and gained his PhD from the University of Washington eight years later. As a professor of sociology at the private American University of Cairo, Ibrahim supervised the masters degree of Mubarak's wife, Suzanne.

Ibrahim set up the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies as an independent social-science think-tank in 1985, using the proceeds of a prize for his work in the social sciences. It was founded as a non-profit company with the aim of "applying contemporary social and human sciences to serve the development of Egypt and the Arab world".

The centre, which has been closed since the security forces' raid, defiantly proclaims on its website that it believes in a "comprehensive conception of developmentI one that aims at freedom, democracy, justice and creativity". From his think-tank, Ibrahim frequently challenged the state.

He worked on behalf of the Copts, Egypt's Christian minorities, and in summer 2000, just before his arrest, he caused outrage with a paper on the issue of Mubarak's succession - suggesting that the 74-year-old leader was grooming his son to succeed him. "I think the issue of succession was the silent charge against me," Ibrahim says. "The idea of my paper was that even though we are a republic, under a democratic republican system, we are being ruled by dynasties."

In early 2000, the centre accepted £158,000 from the EU as part of a general voter education programme that was run with a group promoting women's voting rights in Egypt. This work on promoting democracy was just too sensitive for the state, Ibrahim says, and was the trigger for its attack.

Egypt is a rare democracy in the Arab world, and it bucks the regional consensus with conciliatory moves towards Israel and close links to the West. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that it has long been divided over its Islamic groups. Ruthless oppression by the security authorities has not slowed the rise of the Islamists, and in 2000 they were a serious electoral threat to the NDP.

In this climate, Ibrahim was active in voter-education initiatives and was publishing work claiming that the 1995 elections had been rigged. He argued in one documentary that the more people who turned out to vote, the less likely it was that the NDP could fix the result. It was immediately after Ibrahim declared his intention to monitor and report on the 2000 elections that he was charged with "disseminating false information harmful to Egypt's interests".

In the event, the 2000 elections drew serious criticism from human-rights organisations. When two candidates for the Muslim Brotherhood - an Islamic group made up largely of academics, students and professionals that has long disavowed violence - beat NDP candidates in the al-Raml constituency, the ministry of the interior annulled the results because of alleged irregularities. It was two years before the election was re-held, and the NDP won by a landslide.

Human Rights Watch has regularly reported violent clashes outside polling stations, claiming that security and police authorities have prevented supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood from voting.

Ibrahim, who advocates drawing peaceful Islamic groups into the democratic process, believes that their suppression will play into the hands of violent, radical groups. "The most oppressed group here is the Islamic activist," he says. "Nobody is speaking for those who use violence - their convictions under the security courts seem to be a fair price for what they have done. But there are thousands of Islamic thinkers who were arrested, detained and never charged or tried - it is a clear violation of human rights.

"Every few weeks, some (of the Muslim Brotherhood's) leaders and cadres are arrested," Ibrahim says. "They are thrown in jail then put on trial. Many of these will spend from six months to five years [in jail] and will be arrested again shortly after being released. The idea is just to keep them off balance, keep them from making headway in controlling professional associations - as they usually do very well in elections."

Ibrahim says oppression will inevitably strengthen the oppressed. "It is the younger cadres who see the Muslim Brotherhood as a bad example - having disavowed violence, they are being arrested, detained and deprived of the fruits of their successful struggle in elections. They see that this regime doesn't play fair even with those who are non-violent. So there is no way other than to use violence."

But with the suppression of academic as well as political dissent, problems cannot even be aired, let alone addressed. "My case has had a chilling effect on all academics, on all non-government organisations, on all advocate groups, who cannot hope to have as much of a high-profile hearing if anything happens to them. They think: 'If this can happen to Saad Ibrahim, what could happen to us?' And my heart goes out to them. Their fear is legitimate."

Human rights organisations this week were quick to temper their celebration of Ibrahim's freedom with continued concern about the state's intimidation of Egypt's intellectuals. Amnesty International issued a list of dozens of other prisoners of conscience, including 16 alleged Muslim Brothers - among them "university professors and engineers" serving prison sentences for non-violent political activities - Jand 21 others charged with "contempt of religion".

Robert Quinn, director of the Scholars at Risk network at the University of Chicago, says: "The (release of Ibrahim) is a strong signal that the region is moving forward and embracing the benefits of open, scholarly discourse and social criticism.

"But negatively, the arrest, trial and imprisonment of a prominent academic such as Dr Ibrahim intimidates other scholars in the country and the region. This chills legitimate research, inhibits faculty and students, and discourages students and young scholars from entering important fields of study."

But for Ibrahim, free at last, there is a glimmer of hope: "After my detention prompted an international outcry, I became more psychologically secure in a way. I always believed that somehow my case would be vindicated. Even if I stayed in prison, the regime would have to pay a price of international condemnation. I hope that it will be a turning point in our struggle for freedom."

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