Skip Navigation
Prominent Egyptian Human Rights Activist Looks on the Bright Side of the Middle East

Prominent Egyptian Human Rights Activist Looks on the Bright Side of the Middle East

Former political prisoner Saad Eddin Ibrahim presents 7 reasons for optimism for the region.

By Leslie Evans

"As an activist I am always looking for signs of hope."

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a distinguished sociologist at the American University in Cairo and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. He and a large group of researchers from his center were arrested by the Egyptian government in June 2000 and put through a three-year ordeal of trials and imprisonment on the spurious charges of unpatriotic activities and "embezzlement" from the European Union -- a charge the European Union itself denied. Their crime was to publish material on the persecution of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, and documents showing that the country's 1995 parliamentary elections had been rigged. Ibrahim was released from prison in March 2003 after a worldwide outcry resulted in his country's highest court ruling that he was innocent of all charges and that the research that was the ostensible basis of his arrest was all true. Ibrahim spoke at the UCLA Law School April 16 under the sponsorship of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations and the Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Ibrahim began by defending the title of his talk, "Seven Reasons for Optimism in the Middle East." He conceded that such a title was "provocative," and noted that in the last fifty years the Greater Middle East, the region from Pakistan to Morocco, which had contained only 7% of the world's population, had been responsible "for 35% of the total armed violence that occurred globally in that time." Still, he said, "as an activist I am always looking for signs of hope."

With a sprightly and engaging manner, Ibrahim offered his seven reasons that are running against the tide of negativity:

1. The fall of Saddam Hussein. "Regardless of what most of us felt about it before, the fact remains that Iraq is without a dictator today."

2. The turnaround of Libya's dictatorial leader. "Qaddafi is retracting and retreating so quickly that you could even count every day he is doing something to revamp his image, to atone for some of his past. Yes, you can count him as fallen for all practical purposes even though he is a sole ruler."

3. The impending settlement of the almost-forty year civil war in Sudan between the Muslim Arab north and the Christian and animist black African south. "That conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 3 million Sudanese in the last forty years. And has displaced probably twice as many Sudanese, who are now refugees either inside Sudan or in neighboring African and Arab countries."

4. The democratic reforms instituted by royal rulers in several Middle Eastern states. Ibrahim pointed to "young modernizing kings, in Morocco, in Bahrain, in Jordan. Increasingly in Qatar and in Muscat and Oman. These young monarchs, all Western educated, all relatively young, have taken upon themselves to move their countries steadily into democratic governance." He was especially pleased with the new personal status law in Morocco. "King Mohammad VI submitted a bill to his parliament, challenging them to pass it, to give women full equality, gender equality in Morocco. Now that is very revolutionary for a Muslim country. Going even beyond Tunisia, which was the leader in modernization in this area. That is a revolution that is being emulated by other kings, especially in Bahrain and Qatar."

5. The attempts by individuals and groups in Israel and Palestine to negotiate their own peace over the heads of their governments. "About a year ago, forces from both sides, led on the Israeli side by Yossi Bellin and on the Palestinian side by Yasser Abed Rabbo, got together with their associates and they have been hammering out agreements, based on previous initiatives. . . . And in order to make sure that it is in fact something that could be implemented, they sent the draft agreement to every Palestinian and Israeli household after they signed it in Geneva in a big celebration attended by several former heads of states, several public figures. Former President Carter attended. Clinton sent a message. So did President Mandela. Many great leaders. There were about 27 Nobel Prize laureates attending the celebration of signing that agreement. It is a virtual peace agreement."

6. Peaceful and successful electoral contests by Islamic parties, in Morocco and Turkey. "For the first time we had Islamicists running for office after a period of fear arousal around Algeria, where the Islamicists won in a first round of a two-round election. They won a majority in the first round and they were poised to win again in the second round. At which point the Algerian army intervened and stopped the second round from taking place. Staged a coup d'etat. Forced the president to resign. Took over and appointed one of their own. And Algeria as you all know in the following eleven years was plunged into bloody civil war. They lost about 200,000 plus in the fighting between the Islamicists and the Algerian government. And every dictator in the region, whenever somebody brings up democratic reforms, says, Oh, do you want another Algeria? And they silence their critics by always bringing up the example of Algeria. . . .

"Well, luckily, in two important countries, one of them is Morocco and the other one is Turkey, Islamicists ran for office in a parliamentary election. One is the biggest bloc in Turkey, and the third biggest bloc in Morocco, participated in government. This was a year and a half ago, November 2002. And it wasn't the end of the world. Nothing happened. . . . This is very important because it put to rest this exaggerated charge, this unjustifiable fear of the Islamicists. Here they came. They respected the rules of the game. They ran, they won, they are part of a government or formed the government themselves and they are acting in a very responsible manner. Better than anyone could have expected."

7. For his seventh reason for hope, Saad Eddin Ibrahim cited his own release from prison by Egypt's high Court of Cassation.

Repression under Mubarak

A lively question period covered a wide range of personalities and issues in the region. Asked what he thought of Egyptian President Mubarak, Saad Eddin Ibrahim replied, "He is a master impression manager. An impression engineer. But this is all that he is. Nothing else. No substance but impression. But he put more people in jail than all of his predecessors. And there were two predecessors, Nasser and Sadat. He executed more of his opponents than the other two combined three times over. He put me in jail one year after he had asked me to draft for him a proposal for political reform. And two weeks after his wife asked me to draft her speech for a conference that she was attending in Geneva. So that is the kind of regime we have."

Concessions to the Copts

A Coptic Christian congratulated Ibrahim on his release from prison and applauded his defense of Egyptian Copts, but questioned Ibrahim's conciliatory attitude toward Islamic parties, saying, "I don't see any hope from the Muslim Brotherhood, the corrupted party, and the majority party in Egypt which really controlled most of the policy in Egypt. They are fanatic, they are fascist. What do you think of that?"

Ibrahim responded by noting that the Islamic parties in Morocco and Turkey "did not engage in further persecution of their own minorities in these two countries, because of the democratic framework." He pointed to concessions to the Copts by Mubarak as a result of international publicity around his own case. "What the Mubarak regime did as a result of the case, and as a result of the high publicity that the case received around the world: He made several concessions to the Copts. One of them is to make the 7th of January, that is, the Copt's Christmas, a national holiday, a demand that I and my colleagues have been asking for. A demand that the Copts have been asking for for 1400 years, since Egypt became Islamic."

Ibrahim also pointed to Mubarak's creation of the Supreme Council for Human Rights in Egypt, three members of which are Copts, including Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who served as Secretary General of the United Nations, 1992-96. "So he is making concessions. . . .  And if the Muslim Brothers come on board for democracy I have to welcome it. I should not resent it. Whether they are sincere or not, behavior will show. "

Should the Palestinians Accept Sharon's Offer to Withdraw from Gaza?

Ibrahim was asked to comment on Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's current offer to withdraw from Gaza while permanently annexing some of the larger Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "Of course, any window of opportunity should be welcomed," Ibrahim responded. He said he considered it a mistake for Yasser Arafat not to have signed the Camp David II agreements with Israel in 2000. "I felt that if Arafat and Barak did not sign that agreement we would have lost a great opportunity. And in fact, the following three years proved it. And therefore, I would say, take it. And ask for more if you are not satisfied."

Is Optimism Justified?

Saad Michael Saad, senior editor of Watani International, an Arabic-language Coptic Christian newspaper published in New York, lamented the hostility of the Egyptian and Saudi media toward his people. "Hate messages are printed in textbooks from kindergarten to senior high school and followed up by professors in every subject. . . . Do you see any reason for hope on this point?"

Ibrahim replied, "When I wrote to Professor [Leonard] Binder [director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies] about the seven reasons to hope, I gave him another alternative title: 'Seven Reasons for Despair.' So I can broadly marshal ten more reasons for despair besides what you just said. But what are we going to do about it? This is always a question that an activist asks. This is what we learned in the sixties when I was here as a student and was part of great movements: the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement. And there was a phrase: If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. So instead of lamenting and cursing the dark, just do something."

Is the AKP in Turkey an Islamic Party

Middle East specialist Professor Nikki Keddie took issue with Ibrahim on seeing the electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey as setting a precedent for Islamicist electoralism. "In the long run the AKP which is in power in Turkey could be a model for other parties in the Middle East," she said. "But I think realistically in current terms that it is a party all of whose leaders, if you call them Islamists, will say no, they are not Islamists. They won a victory because, everybody agrees, people were so disgusted with the corruption and the cronyism." She pointed to Turkey's strictly secular constitution, which does not exist elsewhere in the Middle East, and noted that the AKP "have not taken steps to enforce any part of Islamic law."

Ibrahim conceded that the AKP has a unique tradition of accepting secular rules, but pointed to a greater acceptance of a secular framework by other Islamic parties in the region. He cited reforms within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, announced by its new leader Mahdi Akef. "Two weeks after his election," Ibrahim said, "he held a press conference in the heart of Cairo to declare to everyone that the Muslim Brotherhood now stands totally for Western style democracy, underlined. It has always said it wants democracy -- but not Western democracy. Akef said, We endorse Western type democracy. And like our brothers elsewhere in Turkey and Morocco and Jordan and Bahrain, we will respect the rules of the game. We will never renege on the rules of the game."

Democracy and the King of Jordan

Saad Eddin Ibrahim sought to describe the interplay of the Islamic parties that are evolving into an ambiguous relationship with democratic reforms and liberal monarchs who fear them. He gave as an example his own experiences with King Hussein, the late ruler of Jordan. Ibrahim had a discussion with King Hussein shortly before the parliamentary elections of 1989. There had been riots when the government, under pressure from the IMF, canceled food subsidies. "I was part of the Jordanian transformation," Ibrahim recalled, "and I saw what they did, after an uprising in Amman and the king asked me, because I was living in Jordan at the time, what to do? And I said, why did you abolish the food subsidies, your majesty? It was World Bank and IMF demands, he said, and he could not balance the budget without removing the subsidies. I said, if that was a must, couldn't your majesty have faced your people with this inevitability so at least they will understand? He kept asking, What do you mean? And I kept beating around the bush. And he said, Oh, could you be meaning democracy? And I said, yes. And he said, Why didn't you say so?

"The crown prince at the time was Prince Hassan. I said, Well, because every time I ever mention the word democracy his highness Prince Hassan will jump. Hussein said, 'Ho, ho, ho' -- and the king, although he was a small sized human being, but he had a huge laugh. And he kept laughing at his brother for jumping at the word democracy. So anyway, to make a long story short, he asked, What if the Islamicists came to power and reneged on the rules of the game? I said, we will get them to agree in writing beforehand in a national charter, and not only the Islamicists but also the Marxists or the Baathists or the Nasserites, all of these were in Jordan as forces. I suggest that your majesty convene a national congress and get a draft charter debated, that everybody will respect the rules of the game. And give the army, just like in Turkey, an ultimate arbitration role in case any of those signatories to the national charter reneged. He thought that was a good idea. Never in my life was I ever listened to by a ruler except this one."

Jordanian Women Teach the Islamic Ministers a Lesson

A few months after the conversation recounted above, in November 1989, Jordan had an election and part of King Hussein's fear materialized. "The Islamicists won the biggest bloc, and they chose four ministers. That did not look very critical at the time, but I knew they were very critical. They chose the Minister of Education, the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Information (who has the mass media), and the Minister of Social Affairs. Four very important ministries. And they overplayed their hand. They did some things that you were afraid of. Among the stupid things they did was to demand that any woman who was working in these four ministries come to work veiled. Two, they demanded that none of the women working in these ministries ever go to a coiffure shop that is run by men. So the women rebelled. They organized a demonstration in Amman. They marched to the royal palace, day in and day out. King Hussein was delighted that the four Islamicist ministers were in trouble because of overplaying their hand. And in fact, out of this stream of demonstrations by women they resigned. And in the next election they lost their majority. That's democracy."

Prospects for Democracy in Iraq

Ibrahim was asked what he thought about the prospects for democracy in Iraq. He replied that the best precedent lay in the liberal period of secular rule from the time of the country's modern creation by the British in 1920 until the military coup in 1958 that brought a military dictatorship and eventually the Baathists to power. During those 38 years, he said, "you could have a Kurdish prime minister and nobody would cough, no eye would wink. You could have a Shi'ia commander of an army and nobody would raise a question. You could have a Sunni minister of this or that. People did not think in sectarian terms in those days. And this is a very important period in the history of Iraq, because it is that collective memory around that liberal legacy that must be the basis of building the new era."

A second ground for optimism is Iraq's large middle class. "Iraq has one of the growing and biggest middle classes in the Middle East and the Arab world today. Thanks to Saddam Hussein, believe it or not. He did two good things despite all of his vicious record. He expanded education. Iraq has a very high rate of literacy, higher than Egypt as a matter of fact. Close to 85% of Iraqis are literate. This is not to be said about Egypt or Syria or many of the Middle Eastern countries, or Iran. Second, a growing middle class. Because anyone who made it through high school and through college thinks of themselves as middle class, whether he has the income of a middle class or not, but he thinks and espouses the values of meritocracy as a typical middle class, and the middle class in Western societies in our experience were always the backbone of democracy."

The third reason for being positive, Ibrahim said, is the neighborhood. "Iraq is surrounded by four countries: Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Kuwait. Three of these countries, and Bahrain, which is very close, are more or less democratic. You have Turkey, which is an established democracy. Kuwait which is an established democracy, because it has had democracy since its independence back in 1961. And then you have Iran, which, what would you call Iran? They have elections which have been regarded as generally reasonably fair elections. And then you have Syria. So you have, really two and a half democracies in that neighborhood against one and a half authoritarian states." He noted sociological studies that correlate the number of democracies among a country's neighbors with the likelihood that it will adopt democratic institutions in a period of transition.

On the negative side, he said, there is the influence of Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

"Second, there is pluralism in Iraq. At one time that was very positive, but at another time it could be a very negative antidote to democracy. Because you can ignite ethnic and sectarian rivalry and violence and conflict and that can impede any prospect for democracy."

A third negative is the lack of law and order. "Thanks to Mr. Rumsfeld and Company, dissolving the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police force and the institutions of the Iraqi state so prematurely before providing an alternative. Now America and the coalition forces are paying very highly for these very impulsive and very ill thought out steps."

He also regarded the unilateral U.S. invasion as posing significant complications. "The patriotic, the native, the primordial impulse in every society will rise up against occupation. Even if it is a benevolent occupation. Even if the intentions are good. Occupation is occupation. Foreign forces are foreign forces. Third World countries are very sensitive to foreign occupation, especially if it is a Western, white occupation."

Some Rethinking among the Muslim Brothers in Prison

Another question drew Saad Eddin Ibrahim out on his contacts with members of the Muslim Brotherhood while in prison, and reports that they have been rethinking their attitude toward democratic institutions.

"The Islamicists in prison with me engaged me in a long battle," Ibrahim said. "They asked some simple, legitimate but agonizing questions. Why has the world raised so much fuss about you and nobody lifted a finger about us, and we have been rotting in prison, some of us for twenty-five years, some of us for fifteen years without even a trial? And nobody cared about our human rights. So what is this? Is it because you are doing something? My answer to them, and I was in two or three different confinements, nobody was supposed to contact me or to talk to me, however they found ways of getting to me, and they are sending these terrific messages. So I said, obviously those who are raising all of this fuss abroad about my case and my colleagues from my center are perceiving us as sharing a core value, democracy, freedom, liberty, human rights, diversity, respect for minorities, respect for women. And that is why they are mobilizing in our support.

"They wrote back, saying, but we also share these values. I said, if you do share these values you have not proven by word or deed that you share them. They said, how can we prove that? I said, well, by word or deed. Write up your newly discovered values or assert these values if you have held them all along, and act them out. They said, we can write, but we can't get them out. We are prisoners. I said, alright, start with what you can do.

"So they produced four volumes. All of them are revising their thoughts, some of their practices. In one of the volumes they repented, they atoned, because one of the groups in prison with me was the group that assassinated President Sadat. . . . Some were hung, and others were condemned to life imprisonment. Anyway they wrote these books and they atoned and they regretted. They wanted to go all the way as to declare Sadat a saint. I said, wait a minute. The pope is taking all his time before he can declare Mother Theresa a saint. So don't rush into it, because there is already a big question about your credibility. So if you go all the way after having killed the man to declare him a saint, nobody will believe anything you say. So wait on this one for a while."

Is the Problem of the Middle East Terrorism or Dictatorship?

One person asked Ibrahim if his optimism extend to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East. He replied, "Did you hear about the problem of terrorism twenty years ago? No. Thirty years ago there was no such problem. This is a new problem, generated by the lack of progress and success among many of the ruling regimes. Problems that have lingered on and on. I give Sudan as an example. Palestine is another. Iraq. Egypt. All of these countries have had the same government, same rulers, for the last thirty years, and many of them are backed by the United States. So people who are angry, dissidents, what do they do? They try, like I did. I ended up in prison. So they try violence. And the violence starts at home first, and then they discover that these regimes at home are very hard to bring down because they are backed by bigger powers like the United States. So they get to the United States. That is in brief how I see terrorism. And therefore, if you accept that explanation, then you know the steps to solve some of the chronic problems of the region."

Should the Palestinians Have Rejected the Oslo and Camp David Accords?

Ibrahim was asked if the Palestinians made the right choice in rejecting such partial settlements with Israel as the Oslo and Camp David accords. He answered, "You always must ask what is the alternative? The alternative is the status quo. And I see that the status quo has hurt the Palestinians tremendously. Every day they lose more and more hectares. Every day they lose more and more land. Every day there is a new settlement. Things are created on the ground. More and more people leave the country." His advice was: "I would hold on to what I have and hope that things would change in the future so I can demand more."

He added, "We did not want to repeat 1947, when half of Palestine, half of historical Palestine, was to be opened to the Palestinians and the other half was to be opened to the Israeli state. And that was rejected. And then we have twenty or thirty years later to regret that it was not accepted. I do not want to continue this kind of cycle of rejecting and then regretting and then crying and weeping. And I am saying that in all honesty."

Burkle Center for International Relations